Mira Weller is a rising 4th year rabbinical, education and non-profit management student at HUC-JIR’s Skirball Campus in Los Angeles. She holds a degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Before her work in the Jewish community, she worked in digital marketing, graphic design, and web development with Los Angeles-based non-profits. She is a musical “polyglot” (violin, viola, piano, guitar, drums and voice). Her guilty pleasures include chocolate, daydreaming, and analytic philosophy.
My personal experience reflects much of the work that religious schools have done in response to our current crisis. From redesigning Jewish learning on-the-fly, to reimagining prayer life in cyberspace, my hard work mirrors the hard work of so many Jewish educators and professionals to keep our community afloat. However, I have a unique position amongst students as both a semi-professional musician, a religious school programmer with a background in digital marketing, and in my work with HUC-JIR/LA’s Tefillah Committee (Vaad Tefilah) as a campus leader.
Our transition to digital learning reminds me of an anecdote from my own music background. When I was in college, I ran a chamber music program. After 20 years of training on viola, I tried to play violin. Viola and violin seem like similar instruments - an untrained eye couldn’t tell the difference between the two (viola is deeper and slightly larger). But when I started to play violin in my chamber music, I suddenly felt very alone and very awkward. Violists play accompanying roles; whereas violinists play the melody line and stand out, violists fill up the music space. Their notes create the sensation of community and keep the group synchronized. Suddenly on violin, I felt alone, my tone sounded like a screech, and I lacked the grounded sense of rhythm, connection and direction offered by my viola part. Over time, I fiddled with the instrument, testing various speeds, pressures, postures, and movements. I learned to orient myself differently towards the group. I learned to listen into the quieter support systems around me. With time, patience, and attention, our sounds came together to form one, unified voice.
My first virtual service, a Zoom Havdallah with HUC’s LA students, felt like my early experiences on violin. Usually I start a service with my guitar’s cordial strum - an invitation to join. Suddenly my voice alone had to carry the room’s attention. I felt alone and awkward as I sang the Havdallah tunes with the poorly-streamed, half-formed strums of a student guitarist. Only later did I learn that I lacked the expensive technology to stream two audio sources at once on these online platforms. Only later would I fully understand that these barriers make online communal singing nearly impossible, a source of heartache for many of us in the field. In planning the service, my co-leader and I did not know what to expect and how to inhabit the digital space. We would need to fiddle for a while - testing set ups, equipment, posture, choreography, lighting, and more.
A similar experience translated to the classroom. In my role as the educational intern on the Leo Baeck Religious School team, I facilitated our move to online religious school. We needed to translate the highly interpersonal religious school space into a purposeful experience for our students, and we needed to do it quickly. I knew that our school would run most efficiently with one-on-one Zoom trainings for each of the staff and volunteered myself. I remembered how awkward I felt both switching to violin and leading tefillah and knew I could address the discomfort, the feeling of estrangement, and the lack of grounding that made those experiences so challenging. For one intense week, I worked with each teacher in private sessions.
I applied principles for effective digital communication: (1) streamline, (2) make information readily available and current, and (3) stay simple and clear. I kept training times to a minimum and did not suggest new features unless I sensed the teacher was ready for more advanced learning. I connected less tech-ready teachers with an in-class support staff so that they could focus on their teaching - an adjustment in itself in the digital space. Our school now focuses on how we can meet with purpose while balancing our need for connection with our need for purposeful activity.
I catered my Hebrew Through Movement courses with Leo Baeck Religious School’s 3rd to 5th graders to emphasize physical movement as self-care. When I say “l’ga’at barosh”, my students know to give themselves a little head massage. When I say “l’harim et ha yadayim,” we stretch our hands high to the ceiling in Sun Salutation. I use camera effects to pantomime walking down the stairs (l’horid et haguf) and end the session with deep breathing (linshom). We are all aching - both physically and emotionally. Humor and movement ease the tension and breathe life back into the endless days.
In times like these, our community needs to find purpose in our digital time together. In Priya Parker’s book The Art of Gathering, she asks readers to identify the “why” that brings us together. Why should we gather when our tradition emphasizes physical community? Because we need each other. Sometimes in absence, our purpose becomes so much clearer.
Only a week or so into Stay-In-Place, my grandmother fell into a coma. I gave her final blessings over FaceTime. The next day, she passed away. We tried to scramble a Zoom funeral together, but technical challenges reduced her ceremony to a 15 min screenshot of her grave. I offered to host a shiva minyan for the family on Zoom, but few showed interest. I knew my grandmother would have wanted some kind of a shiva after her funeral. I also felt that deep ache amongst the student body to come together for a purpose beyond our current pandemic.
I turned to a dear friend to help me – she crafted a service and I sent out a message to classmates online. The night of the shiva minyan, over 50 people came to our call. I could see my sisters’ faces alongside my incredible HUC-JIR community of friends and mentors, future and present spiritual leaders, and I felt that sense of purpose. Rather than feeling awkward, isolated, and ungrounded, I sensed the community rush to my side and support me in ways I could never imagine before this crisis. I learned how to listen in once again to the quieter sources of support. I understand now that when I need help I’ll ask for it, and when you need help I’ll be there to help you. By listening in, we can find wholeness – the unity we crave and can find once again in our digital community.