Kol Rinah rabbi, congregants adjust to life online

Nancy Berg, pictured in her office at Washington University, won the National Jewish Book Award for “What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew (And What It Means to Americans).” Photo: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Kol Rinah held its last in-person minyan for at least the next few weeks on Monday morning.

The Conservative congregation sent out an email just after midnight alerting members of the cancelation of the daily services and its early childhood center, among other stoppages due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We had a number of people saying Kaddish,” said Rabbi Noah Arnow, referring to the mourner’s prayer. “We had a lot of our Monday morning regulars there, and there was a certain sense of sadness to know that we are not going to be together in the same physical space for a while.”

The congregation instead on Monday night started doing virtual evening and afternoon services using Zoom video conferencing. 

On whether the live streamed minyans can help fill the void left by not coming to the congregation each day, Arnow said, “I think so, I hope so, and we will slowly find out.”

Nancy Berg, a Washington University professor, had been attending services each day to say the mourner’s kaddish for her mom, Shirley, who died in May at age 84. There is a Jewish tradition of saying kaddish for 11 months after a parent dies or on the yahrzeit, the anniversary, of that person’s death.

“I initially though I would go throughout shloshim (the 30 days following burial), and then see how it goes. I didn’t want it to become an endurance contest; I wanted to do it as long as it was meaningful,” said Berg, who teaches courses in Hebrew and Jewish literature.

It did turn out to be meaningful. 

“Most of the time I found it helpful. It becomes a support group, and it becomes a support group in a very quiet way. It was helpful to me to be around people who were either also saying kaddish or had been around people who were saying kaddish,” said Berg.

She said she planned to participate in the virtual minyanim but was unsure what the experience would be like. 

“Nobody prefers virtual. Somebody else said to me, ‘I don’t need it. I can just pray to God on my own.’ And so I think there will be a real struggle to create the same sense of community. I’m not disagreeing with the decision. I am not disagreeing with how it was handled. I think we are all working without a script and without a net,” she said.

Berg also has to adjust to her courses, along with all other Washington University courses, being physically canceled and moved online. She was in the midst of teaching two classes: Israeli women writers; and a Hebrew literature seminar taught in Hebrew. On Monday morning, she was in her office considering, “How do we restructure the last five weeks of class?”

“How do you create community online or maintain it?” she asked. “I am trying to embrace the opportunity to learn and grow and to try distance learning, but I really miss the students.”