Junior Congregation is Now “Zoomier” Congregation

Junior Congregation became “Zoomior Congregation” at 10 am on March 21, when I set up my MacBook and a USB microphone in our living room […]

Junior Congregation became “Zoomior Congregation” at 10 am on March 21, when I set up my MacBook and a USB microphone in our living room and led the service online for the first time.  About 30 families – that’s about 75 people — have joined us each week since then, and I’m grateful for their participation, especially that of our Religious School teachers, several of whom join us regularly.  It’s odd not to pray, sing, and talk face-to-face, but our motto is “sing when you’re supposed to sing, stand when you’re supposed to stand, and never stop learning”, and our students and their families are taking that to heart.  (One of our first discoveries was that the Hebrew blessing for washing your hands takes about as long to sing as “Happy Birthday”, and that, in a time of more questions than answers, singing “Adon Olam” to the theme music from “Jeopardy” is quite apropos.)

We’re finding a few upsides to the online format:   Grandparents and cousins have joined us from their homes in Los Angeles, Tennessee, and Florida.  Several families with younger children are joining us for the first time, as well as a number of prospective members.  I’m enjoying meeting the various dogs, cats, and other pets who are also joining us (or wandering around in the background).  And there’s some dancing going on as well, especially during “Adon Olam” (when parents are invited to dance until they embarrass their children).

Thanks to Zoom’s “raise hand” feature, our discussion of the week’s Parshah is the centerpiece of Zoomior Congregation, just as it is when we meet in person.  As usual, I ask a few open ended questions and wait to hear what comes to our children’s minds.  We’ve discovered much in the Torah that’s relevant to the circumstances of the pandemic and to how it feels to live with uncertainty and constraint.  We empathized with the worry our ancestors felt during the Exodus and wandering in the desert, not knowing what each day would bring and feeling out of control.  When we read the double-portions of Tazria and Metzorah – the Parashiot that lay out rules about contagious diseases – we found that, thousands of years ago, the prescription for preventing the spread of illness was wearing a face mask, quarantining, and washing one’s hands, clothes, and the surfaces of one’s home — and were a little shocked at how familiar that all sounded.

As our ancestors persistently complained while wandering in the desert, we shared our current complaints – everything from missing out on sports teams to not being with our friends to our libraries being out of the ebooks we want to read.   When saw how much emphasis was placed on keeping lamps lit for warmth and light in the ancient portable tabernacle, we challenged one another to find ways we can bring some warmth and some light into one another’s lives today.  And when God commanded our ancestors to take a census, we discussed the importance of standing up and being counted, especially in difficult times.

We studied the Holiness Code and the many mitzvot that focus on fairness and kindness, from leaving harvest in our fields to feed the hungry to welcoming the stranger and treating everyone in our community equally regardless of background, race, or heritage.  We talked about what rules we had to live by when we were slaves, and decided that they were probably few but harsh, and that the laws of free people are many — that with freedom comes responsibility.  And our students concluded that no society is truly just if there are different rules for different groups of people.

Because we’re continuing beyond the school year, we were able to explore the holiday of Shavuot together.  Our students brainstormed some excellent ideas for creating new Shavuot rituals to make it as memorable as Passover or Purim:  In commemoration of the 10 Commandments, they suggested a 10-course meal with a special “Shavuot Platter” with samples of each course, and a big 10-piece puzzle that, when put together, creates a path to righteousness.  And because we eat dairy foods on Shavuot, they decided that throwing whipped cream pies at one another might be fun.

Being online has also offered the opportunity to host a few special guests.  When we studied mitzvot about the humane treatment of animals, over 100 of us virtually visited the goats, sheep, pigs, and cows at the Lancaster Rescue Farm.  Just this past Shabbat, in light of the many miracles and seemingly magical events in the Torah, we witnessed dazzling chemistry demonstrations where clear liquids turned into opaque solids and seemingly similar substances burned in markedly contrasting colors, thanks to chemistry teacher Anna Leemon.  We strove to understand these phenomena and debated whether miracles and science can co-exist.

So we’re finding new ways to have fun at Zoomior Congregation while at the same time developing our senses of justice, history, and ethics in a time of pandemic and social strife.   I’m enjoying acquiring new pieces of audio equipment to optimize the online experience, and I thank my wife, Julie, for encouraging me to rearrange the living room furniture and take over the house every Shabbat morning, and our son, Jonathan, for his support, technological and otherwise.  And, most importantly, I have the pleasure of listening to and learning from the innocent wisdom of our children each week.

We’re planning to continue Zoomior Congregation every Shabbat throughout the summer, so please join us whenever you can (whether you are in the Religious School or not), and ask Rabbi Ilana about our weekly Torah discussion guide (“Dan Has Questions!”) for students if you’re looking for some provocative conversation around your Shabbat dinner table.

Be well and stay safe!

Dan Leemon