The Power of Jewish Community: From Synagogue Services to Zoom Phone-Banking
Never a particularly pious Jew in my elementary and middle school years, I viewed all religious events as chores rather than as cultural and devout enrichment. Sunday school—which I attended until my bat mitzvah—was a lilypad that I leapfrogged to reach more exciting weekend activities; I waltzed out of classes hours early each winter to get to Nutcracker rehearsals, and come spring, I’d leave early to reach baseball practice on time. I arrived late to chug ivrit (Hebrew classes organized by my shul) every Thursday afternoon because the public bus from my middle school “ran late,” and I was fully accustomed to the craned necks and sneers I received when my family and I strolled into services mid-prayer.
Even during peak b’nai mitzvah season in seventh grade, I was an enthusiastic congregant only when I got to stand up on the balls of my feet during each recitation of "Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh." And, admittedly, a large part of my commitment to weekly Confirmation classes in tenth grade was the routine post-class Sunday brunch that I’d attend with a handful of classmates. (Lox is an extremely effective incentive.)
Somewhere between the beginning of Confirmation classes and the present day, however, my outlook on my commitment to Judaism shifted completely. During a random Friday night service for a family friend’s bar mitzvah, in the midst of chanting the avot v’imahot, I realized that I'd exchanged the prayer’s transliterations inscribed into my siddur for reliance on raw memorization. I could chant the avot v’imahot with my eyes closed or in a range of tones, with an entire congregation or by myself. And yet, I didn’t have a semblance of the prayer’s English meaning. Not understanding the Hebrew meaning stressed the real reason I was chanting: to accompany every other congregant.
At this moment, mid-prayer, I gawked at the congregation that surrounded me, and for the first time, I was struck by the beauty of the unison in which we were all chanting. Enveloped by the voices of hundreds of people—strangers, neighbors, family members, classmates—my personal voice, no matter how off-key, contributed to the communal value of the gathered congregation.
A few short months later, I attended Confirmation class in person for, unknowingly, my last time. My classmates and rabbi sat in a circle on the carpeted floor—an atypical arrangement—and discussed the possibility that we would not reconvene for another two weeks. The potential spread of a novel virus could force the synagogue to delay a few weekend services, my rabbi explained.
As the pandemic persisted, my newfound appreciation for services slowly waned. But, while my enjoyment of religious commitments ebbed into an ocean of other experiences that lost meaning as quarantine disrupted daily life, my recognition of the importance of Jewish community remained ashore. This value of confraternity coincided with the summer months before the presidential general election, and subsequently, the voter mobilization campaign I had launched in school.
After hours of weekly Zooms, legislative lobbying, and relational voter registration outreach, I realized the stakes of the election at hand called for leveraging all possible communities of support. Keeping in mind the strength of my synagogue community during services only a half a year prior, I began sending emails to my temple’s rabbis and cantors, contacting members of the shul’s social action group, and even sharing strategies with friends and directors I had met or zoomed with at the Religious Action Center. Together, we launched a full-fledged non-partisan phone-banking and postcarding initiative for all members of my synagogue—parents, teachers, students, and tutors alike.
To this day, I’m astounded by congregants’ resounding enthusiasm as they hopped on weekly—and eventually daily—Zoom phone-banking sessions. I’m taken aback by the hundreds of people who continued volunteering well after the general election to increase voter turnout for the Georgia senatorial runoff election a few months later. And most importantly, I’m struck by the way many of my Jewish peers dropped other responsibilities to convene as a digital community.
I have maintained close contact with the people I befriended during the election season. Senior congregants at my temple and I frequently catch up, exchanging non-religious updates about our lives. I even reconnected with a student I met during L’taken, a Jewish social justice retreat during our Confirmation program, and we now work together to organize phone-banking sessions for the upcoming gubernatorial elections.
After attending several in-person, masked, socially-distant High Holiday services last month, I’m well aware that the community I began to appreciate in the pre-Covid era can’t be completely replicated in this new stage of Covid protocol. And yet, I recognize many Jewish observers around the world aren’t even able to physically attend services.
Fortunately, cultivating a strong Jewish community doesn’t happen exclusively within the walls of a synagogue. My inciting moment of community revelation did occur as I was sandwiched between my synagogue’s pews and engulfed by a sea of other congregants, but Jewish community is just as easy to find in other spaces, too. That moment would have very little importance if not for the people I met remotely this past year; the connections I made during GOTV outreach by finding Jewish spaces that reflected my interests ultimately played the largest role in my commitment to Judaism for the indefinite future.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.