Developments in the availability and utilty of technology and the willingness for a congregation to pivot are allowing those who attend services at the Rutland Jewish Center to build community during a holiday like Hanukkah even during the pandemic, according to Rabbi Ellie Shemtov.
Shemtov said she wanted to find options for members of her congregation, which she said has about 70 to 75 families, because they couldn’t get together. She was inspired by another Vermont synagogue that had added social activities to the celebration of Hanukkah, which started on Sunday and runs through Dec. 6.
“Last year, we lit candles together on Zoom every night. It was a different theme every night. One night we had the Hebrew school kids do something,” she said.
This year, Shemtov encouraged members to take part in the Hanukkah film festival, with 11 films made available by Menemsha Films for streaming, and the fee for access to the movies being split with the participating synagogues.
The event was appealing to Shemtov, whose personal history includes working as a film historian and archivist including the Library of Congress where she was head of film cataloging.
For 2021, the activity scheduled on Tuesday night and planned for Saturday is discussing one of the films from the festival after the lighting of the candles.
Friday night will be the Hanukkah Shabbat service.
“We’re doing it as big as we can because we still are not at the place where we share food so we have no potato pancakes, no latkes. We can’t eat latkes together, which I have to say... Me? The thing I miss the most — and I miss a lot of things because of the pandemic — we would have once a month Shabbat dinners after a service. We haven’t had them in almost two years. I miss them terribly. To not be able to share latkes together, it’s not great,” she said.
The synagogue has a klezmer band that will perform Friday after the candle lighting. They will play downstairs at the center to allow for more social distancing and congregants can watch the show on Zoom. Shemtov said she will sing prayers to the tune of Hanukkah songs.
“It will be a lot of fun,” she said.
The band has performed instrumental music in the past but Shemtov also sang at an interfaith Thanksgiving event last week.
“I sing every Shabbat. I’m the rabbi and the cantor, all in one,” she said with a laugh.
She noted that members of the congregation are still wearing masks and collectively, there are still things they can’t do together.
“To be able to be in the building all together (but) spread apart is eons beyond a year ago,” she said.
A table at the center on Grove Street is filled with candles, gifts and other objects that some congregants may need for Hanukkah, like menorahs.
“So that looks a little festive when you walk in our social hall,” she said.
This year will continue a pivot that began in 2020. Shemtov said during most Hanukkah celebrations, the congregation might spend one night together and the rest of the time with family. Members of the Jewish Community Center will be lighting candles together this year, at least twice, separated by location and joined by technology.
“Lighting candles for Hanukkah has become this whole different kind of event. That’s certainly true, and I don’t think that’s going to change because Zoom is with us. Zoom is here to stay and you can quibble about that, you can complain about it, but I have a whole other sermon on why this is good for us because we were not serving parts of our community before. The pandemic made it very clear to me that we were not serving parts of our community, and now we are, and I’m not going back,” the rabbi said.
Shemtov said Hanukkah was a reminder of her personal experience that community has evolved.
“I’m not saying, ‘All I ever want to do is (be) on Zoom.’ I don’t. I miss everybody in person, especially sharing food together, but what I’ve learned is that there are more ways to be a community than what we ever knew,” she said.
Joining the synagogue in July 2019, Shemtov noted there are some holidays, like Passover and Holocaust Remembrance Day, for which she had only participated by Zoom and not with a fully in-person congregation.
She has done funerals remotely and the only bar mitzvahs she’s done in Rutland have been done by Zoom.
“It ebbs and flows but we’re having more participation in services lately. In the middle of the pandemic, during the worst of it, (attendance) slowed down a little bit but people are coming back and we do hybrid. So some weeks, there’s more people on Zoom and some weeks there’s more people in the building,” Shemtov said.
Explaining why she thinks community has evolved, Shemtov some things, like a regular remote meeting, Tuesday at 10 a.m., she calls “Rutland raps with the rabbi,” were created in response to the pandemic and probably never would have happened otherwise.
“We just schmooze. We talk. We check in. See how we’re all doing. I read a Jewish story, and we talk about that story and our response. It’s just a way, in the midst of a pandemic, it was a way for us — we couldn’t be together — and this was a way to bring us together. This very small community of seven or eight people, we’re totally devoted to each other. We hate to miss it. That’s a community that developed completely on Zoom and will probably always stay on Zoom,” she said.