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Friday, January 22, 2021

My Journey Back to Shul

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Attending the 6:15 Shabbat service at Stephen Wise Temple is a tradition I have enjoyed for a long time. After a hectic workweek, schlepping up to Temple and facing the dreaded 405 on a Friday evening always seemed like a monumental task; but once I entered the gates, a calmness immediately ran through my body. When I entered the sanctuary, I was greeted by hugs, smiles and an opportunity to sit arm-in-arm with fellow congregants and strangers as Cantors Lam or Lutz beautifully opened the service and as our rabbis guided us through the traditional prayers. The service was only an hour of my time, but it set the weekend off with the right tone.

Of course, that all changed in March 2020. A tradition so many of us enjoyed came to a screeching halt in what we thought was just a temporary pause. We were now sitting in front of our televisions, watching the service on YouTube. At first, it seemed like a real treat. No long drive on a Friday afternoon, no dressing up for Shabbat and scrambling to arrive by 6:15. Shabbat dinner was actually served calmly, and then we gathered in front of the TV for the service. I am so proud of our shul for their sense of urgency in making our Shabbat experience as good as it could be while living through COVID-19. Even my kids, in their twenties and living on their own, have joined me every Friday evening, like clockwork. Once we mastered socially-distancing, we invited a small group of friends to join us.

If staying at home had lasted only a few weeks or maybe a month, we easily could have looked back on this in a positive light. We are now entering our tenth month of YouTube Shabbat and High Holidays, Zoom classes and virtual everything. There is no doubt that we are all “zoomed out.”

So, you can imagine my delight when I received an email last week inviting a limited group to enroll in the “lottery” to attend a live, in-person Shabbat Service “pandemic style.” YES, IN-PERSON!

I immediately threw my name in the hopper and was delighted to hear a few days later that I was one of the “chosen” few invited to attend. The strict protocols were outlined: masks at all times, assigned seating, limited schmoozing at a six-foot distance. It all didn’t matter — in-person, it felt like I won the lottery!

In person, it felt like I won the lottery.

Last week was also my father Richard’s yahrzeit, and I yearned to honor his life at my synagogue and share his name aloud in the company of my community. Standing in front of the big screen at home just didn’t cut it. Stephen Wise made it happen.

The commute was seamless and travel time was cut in half — one of the “silver linings” of the pandemic. When I entered the service, I saw our masked clergy ensconced in a three-sided plexiglass booth on the patio in front of Katz Pavilion. It was definitely surreal, but this was our new normal. The seating was strategic and followed all protocols, with about 25 in attendance.

All I needed was to hear Cantor Emma Lutz combine Leonard Cohen’s soulful Hallelujah into L’Cha Dodi and Rabbi Yoshi Zwieback’s spiritual meditation in his sermon to realize that we are coming back, ever so slowly and safely. I could not think of a better way to honor my father’s life as I stood to say Kaddish.

After the service concluded, I strolled back to my car feeling a sense of optimism that this service fulfilled my longing to be back at shul, surrounded by fellow congregants, clergy and Torah.

Zoom got us through the turbulent months of 2020. But as “Zoom fatigue” sets in, we must ensure that it does not translate to “shul fatigue.” Now, more than ever, we must push for the smaller, safe and distanced communal opportunities. We are yearning for human connection like never before, and the smallest event can make a difference.

I, for one, am definitely on board. And I promise never to complain about commuting on the 405 on a Friday evening again.


Sandra Heller is a longtime member of Stephen Wise Temple and co-founder of the newly-developed Wise Marketplace, designed to help congregants professionally network with each other during COVID-19.

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