‘Mazal Tov on Zoom’

‘Mazal Tov on Zoom’

Local rabbi teaches course on how to use technology to make online celebrations work

Rabbi Debra Orenstein
Rabbi Debra Orenstein

We’ve all learned a lot in the last year.

Some of it is common sense; we didn’t realize it just because we never had to think about it before the pandemic. Things like, no, it really is better to have a wedding or a bar or bat mitzvah or a bris or a baby-naming party in person than to do it online. There really is nothing to compare to the thrill of being surrounded by other people, with music and laughter and food and wine.

It’s sort of like the difference between live theater and film. There is nothing that compares to watching performers on stage in front of you, not looming but simply life size; you can understand the way they spin human straw into dramatic gold better because you can see them spit and swallow and sweat.

But film can do things that live theater can’t. It is not bound by space and time but can overcome them.

So can online smachot. Joy can travel through the ether. It’s possible to have a profoundly meaningful, even transformative religious ceremony over Zoom, and then to have a party afterward. Collectively, we have a better idea of how to do that now than we did a year ago.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein has been officiating at weddings, leading services where 12- and 13-year-olds become bat or bar mitzvah, and presiding at other lifecycle rituals — including secular life events, such as graduation and retirement parties — on Zoom since the pandemic began. She’s learned a lot. She’s also had a head start.

For one thing, in 1994 she published a book, “Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones,” that included reflections on those events. She began officiating at those ceremony before she wrote the book, and has continued to do so in the nearly 30 years since. So she has a great deal of experience with the in-person incarnation.

Rabbi Orenstein, who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, leads Congregation Bnai Israel in Emerson. She grew up in South Orange, where her father, Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein, led Congregation Beth El, and her mother, Sylvia Orenstein, a lawyer, was a prominent public defender. (Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein died in 2013; Ms. Orenstein, who is retired, still lives in South Orange.)

Rabbi Orenstein been working online since the pandemic began, and she also has the benefit of her husband’s experience. Craig Weisz is a photographer and film maker. He knows how the technology works, and how to use it to make art. So Rabbi Orenstein has combined her background and skill with her husband’s artistry and technical knowledge to create an online course, “Mazal Tov on Zoom,” to help guide people through the steps to make an online celebration not only acceptable but actively moving; to help people perhaps even get something from it that they could not have gotten from an in-person one.

Rabbi Orenstein decided to create the program because “I attended two wonderful events with unhappy Zoom experiences,” she said. “What struck me was that in both cases, the families were loving, the guests wanted to celebrate, and the officiants were good, but the format got in the way of the sense of celebration.

“I knew that it didn’t have to be that way. I wanted to help make a simcha feel like a simcha.

“So I set out to create a course. My first impulse was to do it quickly. To throw something together that I could put up on Zoom and give to people immediately. But the deeper I got into it, the more I realized that in order to really be helpful, I’d have to create something more robust.

“I want to give people all the technical assistance, all the checklists, all the information that they would need. But there’s another level to this course that’s even more important.

“Whether you’re in person or on Zoom or using a hybrid of the two, what makes lifecycle events successful remains the same, and in some ways the Zoom experience was giving us another opportunity to go deeper into the joy and meaning of lifecycle events.”

It’s not that it’s better to have to mark lifecycle events on Zoom, Rabbi Orenstein said. It’s that the need to entirely rethink the mechanics of ceremony, or even of a party, makes you think about what you’re trying to do with that ceremony. Or even that party. It makes you think below the layers of glitz and gauze and matching napkins, down to where the essential meaning lies waiting for you.

Wedding ceremonies and the services where girls and boys become b’not and b’nai mitzvah involve a change of status, and in normal times the community gathers to watch that passage and become part of it. Normally, we take it for granted; we’ve all been there to see it so many times. The pandemic made it necessary for the community to rethink it. “No one would ever ask for this pandemic, but the disruption it brought had the effect of reawakening questions of what is universal and what is unique about every one of these events, and in that sense it is a great opportunity to make them even more meaningful and joyous,” she said.

Her course combines the practical and the theoretical, Rabbi Orenstein said. “I was thinking about those two parallel lines. One involves all the details, the planning, anticipating issues to make the event engaging and smooth. And the other is using the opportunity created by the disruption to go even deeper, and to make the event more powerful in the lives of everyone who participates in it.”

There are things possible only on Zoom. “It offers the intimacy of being able to see people’s faces, and the opportunity for everybody to design their own sacred spaces in a way that reflects their bar or bat mitzvah or wedding rather than a catering hall. You can include guests who might not be able to be there in person, and to use technology to see and hear from far-flung people.”

There’s always the other hand to this situation. “I am keenly aware of people’s terrible sense of disappointment,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “It is very important to maximize what we do have, and to overcome the necessary losses. We can’t hug each other. It can feel so anti-climactic, and that is very real. That can’t be swept under the rug. There are huge disappoints that have to be addressed, and the pain has to be acknowledged.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was at least a sense of newness. The oddity of it all was overwhelming. By now, though, people have become Zoomed out, Rabbi Orenstein said. We all also know that there is an end perhaps not yet in sight, but still coming closer to us.

So how do we deal with smachot in this part of the pandemic?

With an understanding of the technology, with careful planning so that participants and guests know what to expect, and with thought to how everyone can be integrated into the ceremony or party in a way that enriches all of them.

Rabbi Orenstein has some practical suggestions; hosts can mail guests “small pieces of swag” — kippot marked with the bride and groom or bar or bat mitzvah kid’s name, a mug with a picture of the graduate that guests can hold up on camera for a toast. Guests can come prepared with old photos and sweet wishes, written on cards. They even can throw candy at the camera after the bar or bat mitzvah reads Torah for the first time. Breakout rooms can fulfill the function of tables at a party, and the hosts can move from room to room.

Her course looks at “how to make it all celebratory and engaging, from the save the date note to the afterparty,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “An infusion of joy and connection can — and should — happen at every stage.”

Once this is over, some elements of what we’ve all learned are likely to remain. Guests who are homebound or live too far away will be able to Zoom into a party. “And we will never again take for granted the value of celebrating in person,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “I hope that the pandemic has driven home in a deep way the value of community in all its meaning.”

Even beyond that, people now are rethinking “what does it really mean to honor somebody? What does it really mean to make this transition.

“It’s easy to say that a wedding is about going from being single to being married, but what does it mean to this couple? In this family? That varies. You plug your own personal narrative into the sacred story of union, into building a household in Israel, into standing between creation and redemption. How does it play out for this couple?

“It’s the merging of the story of the Jewish people with your own personal story, and the understanding of what that means will be deeper because of what we have been through, and how we have rethought it.”

Who: Rabbi Debra Orenstein

What: Is teaching a course — four online sessions, plus yearlong access to online tools and resources — called Mazal Tov on Zoom

When: It starts on March 1 and most likely will be repeated

How much: $179

For more information: Go to rabbidebraorenstein.com

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