What’s the frequency?
Ridgewood rabbi experiments with radio for Friday night services in the parking lot
One of the things about the pandemic is that it not only demands creativity, it almost forces it, as religious leaders try to balance the very real and right now terribly contradictory human needs for safety and for community.
Virtually all Orthodox and some Conservative rabbis understand halacha — Jewish law — to forbid the use of any electronics on Shabbat and holidays. Their creativity goes into figuring out how to best use space and sunlight and natural voice amplification — aka shouting — to hold masked, socially distanced minyanim outside as long as that was possible, and to make as good use of large, sparsely populated spaces inside as they can.
Rabbis who understand halacha as permitting them to use electronics try to do that in ways that can draw people into the community, rather than atomizing them at home, each one alone or at most with a few other nuclear family members.
Rabbi Dr. David Fine of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center of Ridgewood has been experimenting with new ways to create community. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the shul’s members had two options. They could go to in-person services in a day camp in nearby woods, where they’d be socially distanced, masked, but in person, together and surrounded by nature, being able to experience one of the holiday’s themes, the importance of the natural world whose birthday they were celebrating. The other choice — which about half the congregation picked — was to watch those services online.
The congregation ended Yom Kippur with Neila, the emotionally intense, increasingly joyous service that ends with a piercing shofar blast, in the parking lot; on Simchat Torah, the community danced, without holding hands or even coming close to each other, around a Torah scroll on a table in the parking lot.
Since then, except for one early Shabbat, the synagogue has offered Shabbat services every week. “The continuity was important,” Rabbi Fine said. Friday night services were outside, in the parking lot, “although they were always hybrid,” online as well as in person. “I always had my laptop in from of me.” In August, the shul upgraded the Bluetooth that broadcast the service throughout the parking lot. “That was an important upgrade,” Rabbi Fine said.
Shabbat morning services were online, on Zoom; interestingly, Rabbi Fine said, the number of people who showed up for services every week was about the same as it had been before the pandemic, although it was not the same people.
That was fine until about two months or so ago, when “it was starting to get too cold,” Rabbi Fine said. “The last time we did a Friday night service outside, it was threatening to rain. People had umbrellas, and throughout the service I was thinking that maybe they’d have to dash for their cars.
“The rain held off, the service was fine, but I was concerned that if they did have to go to their cars, they wouldn’t be able to hear the service. So it occurred to me that it would be an advantage to also have a radio transmitter, so they could pick it up on their radios, the way you do when you go to a drive-in movie.
“My volunteer leadership loved the idea. They did some research, picked out the unit to buy, and we’ve been futzing with it. It’s a black box; it looks like a DVR player.
“My son Ariel constructed a holder for it with PCP pipe, mounted on a ladder. We had to find a way to put an antenna out to extend the range to the parking lot. So we got long extension cords.
“At some point we’ll buy a booster and mount it on the roof of the shul to make it more permanent, but for right now we’re still playing with it. It’s a fun project.”
For every service, “you go through the AM dial and find a frequency that is just static. That means that it’s empty.” It’s likely to be a different frequency every service. It’s a relatively uncomplicated process and although it is a kind of radio, it is not regulated by the FCC. “It’s a short-range broadcast — that’s why we have to raise the antenna to get a better range — and AM is more unregulated than FM anyway,” he said.
“We’ve done it three times so far,” Rabbi Fine continued. “A congregant, Evan Fleischman, did most of the work. He and Ariel are the team that’s been setting it up.
“I sing into a mic, and the mic goes to the transmitter, and then the sound goes to people’s cars. I stand on the synagogue’s steps, with a wire connecting me to the transmitter. The last time we did it, it was cold, and I stood in the doorway, but I feel that it is important to stand in a place where people can see me.
“When people get there they line up in their cars, and we would tell them what frequency to use and hand them a siddur. People can stay in their cars and stay warm and still see each other. It’s a different feeling that connecting over Zoom.
“People could see me, but I can’t see them,” Rabbi Fine continued.
He and his team continue to try to figure out how to connect. “My only feedback that the Friday night service was working was that they weren’t driving away,” he said wryly. “So I thought, ‘When you’re in your car and you want to communicate with another car, you flash your headlights. So when I said the Barchu” — the call to prayer at the beginning of the formal part of the service, which is said only when there is a minyan, no matter how you define minyan — “I said ‘Communicate with your headlights.’ And they were flashing their headlights back at me.
“It was extraordinary.”
The morning before the most recent Friday night service he led, Rabbi Fine had completed the conversion of a congregant. “I went around to everyone’s car with a bag of rugelach,” he said. “I was sponsoring the oneg in honor of the conversion.”
On Shabbat mornings, when the service is Zoomed from inside the shul, Rabbi Fine reads the Torah himself; it is not safe, he feels, to allow others into the building to sing. “When I am reading Torah, I put the laptop on top of the shtender,” the reading stand, “and face it toward the Torah scroll so they can follow the yad,” the silver hand-shaped pointer that the reader uses. “We have been trying to find the silver lining in this pandemic,” he said. “The silver lining here is that people actually can see the Torah.
“Unless you are called up for an aliyah, you never really get to see it. That’s why we raise the Torah in the hagbah, but you can’t really see it then either. This is a technological way of making the Torah accessible.
“It is not at all a replacement for being together, in person, but since we all are living through this, we look for the silver lining.”
Once the pandemic wanes, most of these kluged accommodations will disappear, but “this is a reset opportunity,” Rabbi Fine said. Rabbis, like everyone else living through these odd times, have learned a great deal about community and resilience. “As we start to move back to normal, this is a reset opportunity. It gives us the chance to see what we can retain.”