Rabbi Jason Miller speaks with Rabbi Joshua Heller about the changes Zoom has made to work well for the High Holidays as well as the future of virtual prayer services.

At the beginning of 2020, most people hadn’t even heard of Zoom, the video conferencing application. By early April, we were all using Zoom for work meetings, the kids’ school, funerals and shivahs, Passover seders, Shabbat services and to connect with family members during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a rabbi, I have officiated more than a dozen b’nai mitzvah services and two baby namings using Zoom. Zoom has become the new normal. Over the summer, knowing the High Holiday season might arrive before synagogues were able to reopen, rabbis and cantors around the world began preparing for what would become the first all-virtual Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur season.

In order for Zoom to work well for the High Holidays, my colleague Rabbi Joshua Heller has been in direct communication with the company to urge them to make changes. I spoke with Rabbi Heller (who authored the rabbinic position paper allowing synagogues in the Conservative movement to offer virtual services on the Sabbath) about the changes Zoom has made as well as the future of virtual prayer services.

Rabbi Heller has a degree in computer science from Harvard, was the first full-time director of the distance learning program at the Jewish Theological Seminary and has a local connection being married to Wendy Betel Heller, a native of West Bloomfield.

What is your background with virtual prayer services?

Rabbi Heller: I started thinking about the issue of streaming even before COVID hit because in my own congregation there were people who were facing different kinds of health challenges and who couldn’t come to synagogue.

There was a [Conservative rabbis’ Rabbinical Assembly] Committee on Jewish Law and Standards conversation in November when a very early draft of the paper [on virtual prayer on Shabbat] came up, and committee members were very skeptical about whether we should be encouraging people to use technology on Shabbat. And then once people realized what COVID was going to be, the conversation really became fast-tracked in a lot of ways.

How did the pandemic expedite the permissibility of virtual minyans?

RJH: The decision to permit a minyan virtually was actually quite controversial. The first time that I proposed it, the committee was simply not interested. With the closing of synagogues around the world because of COVID, the committee backtracked just a few days later.

Rabbi Joshua Heller is helping connect Jews during the High Holidays.
Rabbi Joshua Heller

How have you advocated with Zoom officials for updates based on the needs of Shabbat and holidays?

RJH: I spent a decent amount of effort trying to make Zoom more Shabbat and Jewish holiday-friendly. One of the challenges of Zoom is that a meeting normally could only last for 24 hours, which is a problem if you’re trying to have 25 hours of Yom Kippur or two days of Rosh Hashanah without touching your computer. At the end of August, I was delighted that we were successful in getting permission to have Zoom meetings/webinars extended to up to 72 hours for communities where Shabbat and Jewish holiday observance require that feature.

How did you get in touch with the powers that be at Zoom?

RJH: I worked my way up the corporate ladder at Zoom until I found the right person who had the ability to make some of these changes. We looked at other options, but Zoom has the price and features that we needed.

What happens after COVID is over? Is this a game changer?

RJH: This is a change that was coming anyway. COVID just brought it on faster. When the Law Committee had the conversation in November, they asked me, “Do you think all congregations will be streaming services someday?” I said very flippantly, “Well, only the ones that are still in business!”

Rabbi Jason Miller is president of Access Technology in West Bloomfield. He is a local educator and tech entrepreneur, who is a leading expert on the impact of technology on Jewish life.

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