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Going Behind the Zoom with BJ

From prayer and learning to volunteering and social connections, each week, thousands of BJ members and friends connect with each other over Zoom. We have gotten a lot of questions from the BJ community about how we make this possible, and Executive Director Colin Weil has the answers!

Q: What is BJ’s stance on using technology to enhance the prayer experience in this unprecedented time?
A: Our community encompasses a variety of approaches to Jewish law and practice. While we have established standards of practice for when we gather together in community, we make every effort to respect each other’s personal choices. Since the start of the pandemic, BJ’s institutional practices have evolved in the face of the present unprecedented health crisis. While our spiritual leaders do not personally engage with technology on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, some of our staff do, thus enabling the functioning of VirtuShul.

During the High Holy Days, our livestream will remain the main conveyor of prayer services. Some of our programming will be enabled by Zoom, YouTube, or Facebook in order to provide members who use those technologies with the deep social connections that are a staple of the season.

Q: How have the rabbis reconceptualized their homes to create a set-up that works to lead services online?
A: Our spiritual leaders and musicians each dedicated a space in their homes to create what they refer to as a mikdash me’at (a small sanctuary). They sought to find a spot where they could feel physically and spiritually separate from the “work week” in order to connect with prayer, and with the community.

Q: Did they need to get special equipment, like microphones?
A: We sent a technology package to each of our spiritual leaders’ and musicians’ homes to optimize sound and production quality. They use professional microphones, audio interfaces, and lighting.

Q: The rabbis and Ari appear so close together on the livestream — is this safe?
A: In fact, the service leaders are all stationed more than 20’ apart in our empty Sanctuary, with individual cameras capturing each of them. Our livestream system allows us to stitch together the individual camera feeds into a shared screen.

Q: Zoom only allows one person to be heard at a time, but we have multiple instruments playing together for Kabbalat Shabbat. How did the musicians make that work?
A: I asked BJ’s Music Director, Dan Nadel, who shared with me how he optimized Zoom settings to ensure that music remained as integral to BJ’s prayer experience as ever before: “I watched livestreams of many synagogues from around the world to cull the best learnings from varied experiences. We enabled what is called ‘original sound.’ This option allows for more than one sound to come through at any given point, and reduces the compression Zoom applies to the sound.”

This means the sound people hear is more authentic than what is usually produced by the software. This approach has allowed us to continue to infuse our prayer with the music that nourishes our souls, even from home.

Q: What is critical for successful implementation of a livestreamed prayer service, especially as we approach the High Holy Days?
A: The rabbis are curating each High Holy Days service in terms of content and length, to focus on the essential prayers and music. They’re also building in breaks, so we have a chance to step away from the screen, stretch our legs, and process the prayer experience.

Q: How is BJ facilitating those less familiar with technology?
A: We know we are better together than apart. We have provided step-by-step guides on how to use Zoom technology on our website, and our staff are available to guide community members who may need additional assistance. We know how large a factor social isolation is, and we want members to feel assured that the BJ community is here to support you.

Q: What positive outcomes have come of the pandemic?
A: For the past six months, we have seen time and again that social and spiritual connection transcends physical distance. Our commitment to creating transformative experiences has nourished the souls and spirits of our community and has held us together. We are looking forward to an engaging and enriching journey through the Yamim Nora’im. See you online to sing, pray, and bake some challah!