Turns Out I’m Obsessed With Virtual Shabbats

DIY virtual Shabbats lower the stakes and make the Jewish ritual even more accessible to all.

Until recently, I never considered group video calls a viable option for socialization.

Maybe this was due to memories of platforms such as “oovoo” or “omegle” with the low grade camera quality and shady inhabitants. Or perhaps my cringy Facebook album titled “iChat vc mems <3” from 2010 tainted the idea of a virtual social life. (Scrolling through this album now only reminds me how I was really trying to force a lot of friendships in 8th grade and that I wish I still owned my Teal Juicy Couture Tracksuit.)

In quarantine, my social life is almost the same as it was in 2010, except Zoom doesn’t have a “Thermal Camera” filter and instead of using my virtual correspondence as a way of avoiding my family, I’m now using video calls as a way to feel closer to them by way of virtual Shabbats.

When I was little, my parents made Shabbat very special for my brothers and me. We were each given a customized Kiddush cup when we graduated preschool, we took turns revealing the challah after the motzi (with a big “tada!!!”), and were dazzled by the fountain-like contraption we would use to separate grape juice into six tiny cups. There was also always the promise of Saturday morning challah French toast which was a huge selling point.

After college, I moved to Brooklyn and my mom suggested I check out an incredible non-profit called OneTable. OneTable provides a network and nourishment funds for young people hosting Shabbat dinners all over the country. I immediately signed up, and 10 days later, I hosted my very first gathering. My mother was very pleased that I was carrying this tradition with me into young adulthood, but there were a few other factors.

As someone whose ideal Friday night is one where 1) I don’t leave my apartment, 2) all my friends come to me, 3) we eat, we drink, we giggle, and 4) I go to sleep at a reasonable hour, Shabbat just makes sense. I had hit the jackpot with OneTable– I was going to throw themed Shabbat dinners, Shabbat movie nights, Shabbat wine tasting — you name it and I was ready to throw down!

I was especially thrilled to be able to introduce so many of my non-Jewish friends to an important part of my identity. In January, it had come to my attention that everyone in my immediate social circle was Catholic when none of them got my classic “the empty chair is for Elijah” joke.

These grand plans seemed to all go kaput when quarantine began, but then a phone call from my mother changed everything for the better. (Isn’t that how it always goes?)

My family FaceTimed me into their weekly 6:30 p.m. Shabbat gathering. It was hectic. It was messy. At times the sound cut out or was delayed. Faces glitched. I spent the entire Kiddush looking at my dining room ceiling. And while it was definitely difficult watching everyone devour my mom’s freshly baked challah when I couldn’t even smell it, I was left with an immense feeling of warmth and joy when I ended the call. All I wanted to do was attend more virtual Shabbats.

My wish was granted the following Friday when one of my oldest friends, Jessica, hosted a virtual Zoom Shabbat. There were over 20 people on the call from a plethora of states. Some were Jews, some didn’t know they needed to have wine on hand and ran out of the room to grab whatever they could find. A mutual Catholic family friend of ours lit a scented candle in lieu of traditional candlesticks, but hey, why not?

We set virtual backgrounds to challah, matzah ball soup, and cartoon wine glasses. We sang some blessings, we had some laughs, I met friends of friends, the Jews did some Jewish Geography, and we were all on our merry ways — 40 minutes, open and shut.

I stayed on the call while Jessica tidied up (like the gracious guest I am). She gushed to me how she never thought she’d be able to incorporate a friend who lived two states away so seamlessly into a Friday Shabbat with her New York friends.

The DIY virtual Shabbat lowered the stakes and made it even more accessible to those not familiar with the rituals involved. Everyone was doing the best they could and trying to figure out what Shabbat looks like with these new given circumstances. It felt like we were all inventing it together.

And without any commute to the event, the stakes felt lower to attend. I can’t count how many times I have bailed on going to a function because it was a 15-minute Uber ride away. No one had to travel, let alone put on pants, in order to be a part of the celebration.

I was so inspired by Jessica’s virtual Shabbat that I set up one of my own for the following week. OneTable, the true mensches that they are, still provided funding for nourishment. By way of a Whole Foods gift card, I was able to cook myself a special dinner and buy fresh challah. Their support has made all the difference in feeling like I was able to treat myself to something tasty when I’m trying to be especially frugal.

One of my best friends from college, Clare, who lives an entire state away, was able to jump on the call when her happy hour ended early, something which would’ve never been possible IRL. She’s a part of the lengthy list of non-Jews who fill my life, and I felt lucky to be able to include her in something so near and dear to my heart. We played a round of “Define That Yiddish Phrase” and it turned out Clare knows more Yiddish terms than I do!

I’m thrilled my robust virtual social life is back to where it once was in 2010, and I will almost certainly be making an updated Facebook album entitled “Zoom Shabbat vc mems <3.”

Header Image design by Grace Yagel; background image by Simone Golob / Getty images.

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