Creating (Virtual) Community During Social Distancing - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Creating (Virtual) Community During Social Distancing

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Monday, March 23, 2020


Tzvia leading the Purim service for her congregation on Zoom.

Third-year rabbinical student, Tzvia Rubens, is the rabbinical intern at United Hebrew Congregation in Joplin, MO. Througout the school year, she was travelling to Joplin from Cincinnati bi-weekly to spend time with the congregation. But, when it was no longer safe to travel, and restrictions were put in place as a result of the spread of the coronavirus, she prepared to connect with her congregation virtually. 

The first time she was planning to conduct a virtual service was Friday, March 13.  Before the service, she spent time testing the technology, and found the perfect spot in her apartment to set up. It was Shabbat and a celebration of Purim, and she decided to keep the service as she had originally planned. A lot was up in the air, but it was important to find a way to make the most of the situation and not cancel Purim.

The service was a Purim shpiel with a Disney theme and Tzvia dressed up as a minion. The congregation, approximately 20 families, were all in costume as well.  Tzvia coordinated with the congregation’s president, Alan Wippman, ahead of time.  She sent him the shpiel, and he printed and distributed it to the congregants, some of whom participated from home, and some of whom were at the temple. She also shared the shpiel on her computer screen and used a Kindle version of the Mishkan T’filah so the congregation could follow along with the service. 

Leading her first online service was challenging, but the silver lining was that her parents, who live in Chicago, and her brother and sister-in-law, who live in Indianapolis, could also attend the service via Zoom.  Even their pets made an appearance!  “Although we were distant from each other, the service brought us together and it was the first time that my family has been at one of my services,” Tzvia said.

Now she’s figuring out how to conduct regular Shabbat worship from afar, including a musical Shabbat with the congregation’s organist and cantorial soloist.  Tzvia and her congregants are also discussing how to conduct a congregational Seder with everyone in their own homes, and Tzvia leading through Zoom.

In these uncertain times, Tzvia’s main concern is keeping her congregation healthy and safe because saving a life is one of the most important values of Judaism. She is grateful for the support and guidance of her professors, classmates, and the congregation’s president as she adapts to this new reality. “It’s a period of trial and error,” Tzvia said. 

She is planning on teaching her Adult Education classes and Torah study via Zoom, in addition to regular Shabbat worship. Tzvia believes that it is important to connect people who are confined at home and isolated and do whatever you can to maintain a sense of community.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.