'Without it, I’d be lost’: the unexpected joy of Zoom Shabbat

Shabbat for me used to mean a break from screens, but as I drop into synagogues all over North America, I’m reminded we’re all in this together

Before the pandemic, Shabbat for me meant a break from screens. My synagogue, housed in a century-old building on a residential street in a quiet Toronto neighbourhood, observes the ancient laws that prohibit the use of technology on the Sabbath. A few Saturdays a month, I used to dress up, walk to shul (synagogue), and leave the frenetic demands of the secular, wired world behind. Since the pandemic shut the doors to my synagogue, I reluctantly turned to online shul to fill the void. Shabbat by Zoom, it turns out, is unexpectedly nourishing.

Last month, the leaders of the conservative movement of Judaism gave rabbis the green light to livestream on Shabbat. Thousands of Jews around the world are just now discovering the joy of virtual worship, known to more liberal Jews for years. In fact, Zoom Shabbat has some distinct advantages over in-real-life congregation. If a sermon is boring, I’ll hop over to a different one. If I don’t like the voice of one cantor, I’ll close the tab and find another. Attendance is anonymous. No one notices if you show up late or leave early. I’ve dropped into synagogues all over North America.

Virtual shul helps me mark the passing of time. Because I no longer drop my kids off to school or ride the subway to work, the days tend blend into each other. Virtual shul helps make Shabbat morning feel special. On Saturdays, we sleep in. My husband works on a cryptic crossword. Mid-morning, I recite Shabbat prayers with other people, just like before the pandemic, only now I don’t dress up or leave the house. I open my laptop at my kitchen table in my yoga pants, or sometimes in bed. My seven-year-old daughter colours beside me, and the two of us sing along to familiar melodies.

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