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Chizuk Amuno Congregation

On Friday the Rabbi Became a Televangelist

Cmon, admit it, you watch those guys on Sunday mornings too. And they’re all guys. Perfectly coiffed, without a note in sight, dapper in handsome suits, staring straight into the camera and preaching the word of God. I tune in for the preaching, I love to watch a masterful preacher. But while I’ve imagined myself as many things in my life, I never imagined myself doing what they do.

Enter the Coronavirus. On Thursday March 12 we closed our physical building and announced an immediate shift to Chizuk Amuno Online. We were fortunate that we had a livestream up and running that had remote capabilities and that I had a twelve year old son at home who is a tech wizard. Within fewer than 24 hours we were having virtual Shabbat services and minyans.

But this was totally new for me. While I had used different platforms to conduct interviews and attend online meetings and classes, I had never led services before virtually. In fact, I’d never watched a livestream of myself from Shabbat services BCV (before Coronavirus), even from my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.  The only preparation I did was marking up a Siddur with post it notes so I could lead more fluidly.

Beginning in the Middle Ages, the Rabbis forbid praying in front of a mirror.They had two primary concerns: one, that it is distracting and makes it difficult to concentrate; and two, that the worshipper ends up bowing to herself.  Both of these reasons had stymied me before when at a shiva minyan or next to a particularly shiny window, I caught glimpse of my reflection while praying. It distracted me, it made me uncomfortable.

Livestreaming from my computer means that for the whole service I am essentially staring into a mirror. Unlike the Sunday morning preachers, my hair is not perfectly coiffed, especially with tefillin on at 7:30am. I need to keep looking down at my Siddur, or sideways at the list of perpetual memorials. I had assumed that one of the side benefits of working from home would be not having to wear makeup, but after my first livestream that went out the window. My mascara ran out the second day of self-quarantine and while everyone else in the country was worried about buying toilet paper, all I wanted was a little pink tube of Maybelline Great Lash. Those televangelist guys were onto something.

Now that it’s been a week and a half (but who’s counting?!) of being a telerabbi, I see the wisdom of the rabbis. My usual work around – closing my eyes when saying the Amidah or whenever I wanted better concentration, was anticipated by the Mishnah Berurah and deemed unacceptable. I am indeed distracted by my own all too human face, and while I have not yet felt that I was bowing at myself, I have felt that it’s somewhat idolatrous to be bowing to a computer screen.

The more recent responsa (discussions of Jewish law) are what have helped me settle into my temporary role as telerabbi. They speak of choosing the location in which you pray so that it reaps the greatest benefit. If it is advantageous to be praying by a mirror, then it is permitted. So for now, I’ll be leading worship from behind a computer screen because that’s the most useful place for me to be. But I’m anxiously anticipating a Friday when I am able to pray on a pulpit instead of a screen.