Shabbat dinners amid the pandemic: An ancient Jewish tradition goes virtual

Naomi Less, a member of Lab/Shul's ritual team, has been helping lead the organization's online Shabbat services since it's become impossible to meet in person.

(CNN)For decades, Teme Ring was cut off from her Jewish faith.

The former lawyer was forced to give up her career in 2000, after an onslaught of autoimmune diseases and dysautonomia, conditions that also made her too weak to step into a synagogue for in-person services.
"I'm in my own personal diaspora," she said.
    In recent years, Ring had hoped to reconnect with faith through a synagogue in downtown Chicago. "I realized I really missed it," she said. "But it seemed ridiculous to belong and never show up." She only dragged herself to synagogue once, and her symptoms were such that she was physically present but spiritually absent.
      Now, however, during the pandemic, with many Jewish congregations taking services online for the first time, Ring's faith has undergone its long overdue blossoming.
        Empowered by technology, she can now regularly attend Shabbat and classes at two different synagogues in Chicago, and at a third in Southern California, where her parents live.
        "I've gone from no Jewish contact for 20 years to now being a member of three congregations," she said. "I don't feel isolated anymore."

          A weekly holiday finds a new virtual home

          Ring's experience reflects a growing trend in Judaism, as several branches of the faith, long resistant to technology, find ways to adapt during the pandemic.
          A traditional way to gather with fellow Jews is through weekly dinners over Zoom, which mark Shabbat (Hebrew for the Sabbath). The holiday begins each Friday at sunset and ends at sundown the following day.
          One group that has embraced the virtual possibilities for faith is Lab/Shul, which describes itself as an "everybody-friendly, artist-driven, God-optional, pop up community for sacred Jewish gatherings in New York City."
          Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Lab/Shul had regularly organized robust in-person community dinners. But since March, the group has moved its weekly gatherings online, in a format called ShaBasics, stripped down to the fundamentals of bread, wine, candles and a blessing.
          "What the Sabbath is about is an invitation to tap into the sacred specialness of life," Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, who leads Lab/Shul, said. "It helps us transcend the anxiety of the every day."
          The irony of gathering online for the Sabbath is that the weekly holiday is often seen as a time to unplug from screens, not reattach ourselves to them.
          But as much of the world moves work, school or social events onto virtual meetups, merging the sacred with the virtual is the only way we can make it through this global crisis.
          "The Sabbath is the weekly opportunity to breathe whether you believe in God or not," Lau-Lavie said.

          Shabbat is an ancient ritual

          It's a tradition nearly as old as time itself.
          Shabbat celebrates the seventh day of creation in the Book of Genesis, a holy day of rest and reflection after the labors of the week.
          During the tedium of quarantine, Shabbat assumes a kind of "anti-blursday" quality, Lau-Lavie said. "It's one of the ways to make days distinguishable from each other."
          Dressing up, putting a tablecloth on the table, seeing your friends and reflecting on your larger values help the day be more than just a regular day.
          "Shabbat is fun. It's this awesome holiday we get every week to rest, to pray and to sing," said Rabbi Sandra Lawson, associate chaplain for Jewish life and a Jewish educator at Hillel at Elon University in North Carolina.
          And perhaps, mostly importantly, it's a day dedicated to connection.
          "A lot of the things we do are centered on community," said Lawson, who has become a Jewish digital leader of sorts, viewing social media as a way to welcome others into the faith. "We're never designed to be alone and to pray alone."
          In order to perform certain rituals or prayers, Judaism calls for a gathering of at least 10 people to form a minyan, or quorum. But with physical gatherings of 10 people prohibited in many areas due to the coronavirus pandemic, serving communities virtually during quarantine presents a conundrum in how to uphold Jewish tradition while taking public health into consideration.
          Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie leads an online Seder service earlier this year.

          Thousands of years of tradition collide with a 21st-century pandemic

          Lau-Lavie, who was previously a member of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, isn't a stranger to using technology to break new ground in the faith.
          Five years ago, when his father passed away, Lau-Lavie was away in Jerusalem, while his spiritual community was back in New York. Skirting tradition, he issued a call for others to engage with him in the mourner's prayer over Zoom.
          "I got a lot of flak from rabbis," he said. But perspectives like his are now becoming accepted within his strand of Judaism, thanks to an extra nudge from this year's pandemic.
          Like other monotheistic religions, Judaism has many movements, including the strictly ultra-Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist wings, all of which are grappling with limits set by the pandemic.