By Susan Hornstein
The Women’s Tefillah Group of Raritan Valley, based in Highland Park and Edison, New Jersey, has been meeting regularly for more than thirty years. Most of our current membership has been a part of the group for at least a decade, and we are a close-knit and supportive bunch. We love to celebrate together, and we love to be together in times of need. So the pandemic hit us hard. We longed for one another, and we worked to find social and ritual outlets throughout the year. Sadly, we lost a cherished member of the group and, frankly, have not had a chance to process this together.
Our group met in person for megillah reading on Purim morning 2020. Thankfully, the event, the last taste of togetherness we would have, did not appear to spread the virus. Although we usually meet monthly on Shabbat during the day, and also monthly on Friday evenings for Kabbalat Shabbat, as well as for the megillot associated with the holidays, we basically shut down until the summer of 2020. During the summer, we decided to find a way to meet on Zoom for Kabbalat Shabbat, when the days were long enough to do so before Shabbat actually began. As we have done with all innovations, we began by learning the halakhot. We held a Zoom shiur to learn the relevant laws of beginning Shabbat, ensuring that all the participants would know the correct practice surrounding shutting off the computer at the right moment and then accepting Shabbat. We held Kabbalat Shabbat every few weeks until the fall, when it started getting harder to be ready for Shabbat in time. After months of missing each other, this really felt good; it felt almost like we were davening together.
One of our favorite gatherings of the year is Tisha B’Av evening. That may sound paradoxical, but we find the warm surroundings of a private home and the cadences of the women’s voices to be a conducive environment for the observance. This was an easy practice to adapt to Zoom. We sent out the text of Eikhah and kinnot and our customary song sheet, as well as sharing them on the screen. Those who wanted to participate in the round-robin of reading the kinnot indicated their willingness in the chat, and the moderator called on people in turn. Instead of singing together, which we all know to be impossible on Zoom, we played recordings of all the songs we usually sing, allowing people to sing along on mute. The program was moving and effective.
Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, our dear friend became ill. We would normally have gathered to pray for her healing, and we found that this could also be done on Zoom. We held two Tehillim gatherings, to which we also invited other friends and relatives. In this way, we felt that the power of the group to pray together on her behalf was harnessed.
The Highlight: Simhat Torah
The highlight of our year is undoubtedly Simḥat Torah, and no one could imagine it passing without being together. We gathered our courage and planned an in-person meeting. The meeting was nothing like our usual service with davening, Torah reading, and amazing dancing. In fact, it contained none of those things. We gathered in a member’s large backyard. Everyone was masked, and chairs were placed in a circle more than six feet apart. Members took turns reading the usual Torah portions from a book, and we quietly sang a few songs, careful not to project toward each other. We enjoyed individually packaged snack bags of apples and chocolate bars. It might not sound like much, but just seeing one another’s faces and hearing everyone’s voices brought us so much simḥat yom tov!
Then it was winter. Everyone mostly hid in their homes. Some of us gathered for Havdalah on Zoom, but our thoughts were with spring. And as we do every year, we held our Tu B’Shevat Seder, sponsored each year in honor of the yahrzeit of a member’s father. She delivered small fruit packages to everyone’s home, and, as with our other events, we “went around the room” with the reading. It was fun, but the Zoom thing was getting old.
And suddenly, a year had gone by. It was Purim again. And there was snow on the ground, making the thought of gathering in a backyard not so inviting. But the weather held, and we gathered in person, in the parking lot of a friend’s dental practice, and, masked and distanced, we read Megillat Esther. It was difficult to project outdoors wearing a mask, with street traffic nearby, but it was so good to see one another again. In thirty-two seasons, we’ve never missed a Purim!
We’ve now done Pesaḥ and Shavuot megillot in a similar manner, a few outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat gatherings, one summer Shabbat Minḥah, and another miniature Simḥat Torah celebration. We have become creative at finding ways to be together while staying apart, but we are so wearied by the effort.
We will undoubtedly feel the absence of our dear friend when we gather for tefillah once more, as she won’t be opening the Aron Kodesh, as she always did. We’ve been there for each other and marked the passage of the Jewish year. We’ve proved that the pandemic can keep us separate, but it can’t tear us apart.
Dr. Susan Hornstein is a founder of the Women’s Tefillah Group of Raritan Valley and a long-time resident of Highland Park, NJ. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Brandeis University and a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Brown University. After a 25-year career in user experience engineering and many years as a Jewish educator, she is now a first-year semikhah student at Yeshivat Maharat.
We worked to find social and ritual outlets throughout the year.
We’ve proved that the pandemic can keep us separate, but it can’t tear us apart.