Broadcasting the Spirit of Shabbat
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Broadcasting the Spirit of Shabbat

Jun 23, 2020

Ingenuity during a crisis can yield innovative results.

That's what Rabbi Karen Bender, Skirball Director of Spiritual Life and the residents of the Los Angeles Jewish Home have discovered as they maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 lockdown.

As Rabbi Bender began to consider how to convey her weekly in-person Shabbat services, she realized the most formidable challenge was how to lead the service without interacting with residents. Bender serves as the rabbi for the Home's Grancell Village (GV) campus, which includes the Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer Medical Center and Mark Taper Skilled Nursing Building.

"If I'm just sitting in front of a camera praying at residents, I'm going to lose their interest," she says.

To effectively engage Jewish Home residents, Bender recalls asking herself, "What if I tried to convey the essence of Shabbat, Shabbat's spirit?"

Earlier in the year, she had successfully led the annual Seder service via video broadcast on closed circuit television from her office. "The fact that the Seder went fine, led me to see the possibilities of how to provide our services during lockdown," she says. "If we can do this, what else can we do?"

"For Shabbat evenings, I decided to show the residents something different and record the videos from my house and outside in my yard with my kids," she says. "I'm bringing the residents into my home so they feel like they are in my living room or baking challah in my kitchen. The hope is to trigger memories for them."

Before she knew it, Bender had become a director-writer-editor-producer—a big leap for someone who lacks professional video production experience. In addition, she also serves as the on-camera host, with staff, her children Holden and Shoshie, and dog Minnie as occasional featured guests.

She records her Shabbat messages via her iPhone on Wednesday afternoon, often editing them late into the evening.

Bender says she's learning as she goes, coming up with solutions as each new challenge emerges. For instance, how to get the residents to feel that they are part of the services? "No one is gathering now," Bender says. "No one receives a compliment on how they read a prayer. No one gets to hold the Torah. They see me, but I can't see them while I record."

Bender notes that while she still meets with individual residents in-person, wearing PPE and remaining at a safe distance, the communal experience had disappeared. One remedy was to create the "Spirit of Shabbat" videos, with the goal to reach everyone at the same time.

To generate a feeling of inclusiveness, Bender has opened up the process and recorded videos of individual residents saying, "Shabbat shalom." Another resident offered to sing the Jewish hymn, "Heenay Ma Tov" and Bender recorded her six feet apart in her room at JEK. She merges these videos into her Friday "Spirit of Shabbat" episodes.

In future videos, she hopes to include staff and residents more frequently to help "create community." Bender also plans to record a tour of the GV kitchen and even prepare chicken soup "with the residents."

"I'm able to include more voices and experiences now," she says. "But overall, I'm trying to encourage a feeling of closeness. I'm seeking closeness when we can't be close, we can't hold prayer services or share a hug. The residents need joy so badly right now. We are observing and celebrating Shabbat every week because I want them to smile."

Watch Rabbi Bender's "Spirit of Shabbat" episodes.

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