Live, Loud and in Color … But from an Empty Shul

By Jay P. Goldman, Tikvat Israel Bulletin Editor

The original setup had the rabbi’s livestreaming laptop perched on the Torah reading table. It’s since been moved to a separate location. (Photo by Sam Freedenberg)

When Cantor Helzner stepped to the bima precisely at 10 a.m. on May 9 and offered a brief nigun, she ushered in the livestreaming era for religious services at Tikvat Israel.

The morning service that day marked the first Shabbat morning service in the sanctuary since the first weekend in March, a string of eight “dark” Shabbats for the congregation owing to the building’s shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now services emanate weekly from Rabbi Marc Israel’s laptop perched atop a standing desk placed next to the Torah reading table in a sanctuary populated solely by the two clergy members. The broadcasting software on his computer has recorded about 70 unique log-ins each Shabbat morning during the first month of livestreamed services.

A technology breakdown on June 6 prevented transmission, but the snafu didn’t deter the two clergy. The cantor soldiered on with davening through Shacharit, with the rabbireading Torah and haftorah and reciting musaf to himself from a pew. “I also recited the names of those whose yahrzeit we observed,” the rabbi reported afterward.

Imminently, Rabbi Israel’s laptop is expected to be retired from Shabbat duty in favor of special equipment that will be installed permanently in the sanctuary by fall so that livestreaming of religious services (and perhaps congregational meetings) will be accessible in the future to those unable to physically attend. The broadcast camera from PTZ Optics is used commonly in houses of worship.

Both the rabbi and cantor have marked the special nature of leading a remote congregation in observance. A few minutes into the first livestreamed Shabbat service, the cantor related the circumstances of daughter Jessica, her husband and 2-year-old granddaughter needing to relocate to her home temporarily after a major storm felled a tree onto part of their own home. Following two months of segregated existence during the pandemic, “all of us were reunited,” a joyous turn for all. Similarly, she added, congregants were now reconnected, albeit electronically, after many weeks apart.

Cantor Helzner’s message was this: “Blessings and curses can come together at the same time.”

When Rabbi Israel first moved into view on the screen at his first livestreamed service, he shared this observation about his personal advantage: “Davening alone with the cantor is like a house concert, a real privilege for me.”