With sacred and liturgical music core to many religious communal services, how do we maintain the role of music, while also adapting to new COVID-19 realities? In the near-term, congregational leaders are struggling with how to translate this to a virtual setting even as longer-term discussions are underway around the role of choirs and communal singing in light of how COVID-19 is spread.
In light of these new realities, Cantor Ben Ellerin of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (BHC)—Baltimore’s largest Reform Jewish community—led a discussion on adapting sacred music for digital congregational services on May 7’s Congregational Leaders’ call. As the leader of music and choral services at BHC for the last two years, Ellerin provided concrete examples of how to offer music not only in weekly services but also in other gatherings and memorials. Not one to be phased by a pandemic, Ellerin converted his garage into a studio to offer live music for Shabbat services. He began leading online music classes for dozens of synagogue members, and he creates mash-up recordings of himself and other performers to provide harmonizing during congregational services.
“Especially now, people are so in need of that personal connection,” said Ellerin. For many congregants, technology is not their native language, and digital religious services can be daunting.
Typical online services at BHC include a clergy-restricted Zoom call that is available via live stream to all BHC members. Likewise, when shiva/memorial services are offered after the death of a loved one, mourners come together in prayer via a Zoom call.
In considering whether to include performed or communal music options, Ellerin noted pros and cons for both. Having a single audio stream from the musician or digital mixer while keeping everyone muted helps to minimize audio feedback and the inclusion of other voices overwhelming the call. On the other hand, this prevents participants from hearing others singing along, necessitating reliance on the visual element in order to feel the spiritual community of the moment.
While many digital services may appear to go smoothly, appearances can be deceiving. Getting the audio and video to synchronize and getting all the moving parts to come together into a cohesive whole can be a timely and demanding process.
As a prayer leader, Cantor Ellerin is careful to “balance the spiritual content of what we are trying to convey and not get so wrapped up in the potential vanity of how we sound, how we look. It’s important to me that there be no barrier [to the congregation] in how we sound and how we look but I don’t want to get caught up in the performative at the expense of the content.”
Looking ahead to the summer and fall, congregations are considering many options. While outdoor gatherings may be a viable option for some, several call participants cautioned that we also will need to continue to use technology to provide for those who still need to remain at home. Digital technology, or a hybrid thereof, will be needed for the foreseeable future.
The next ICJS-hosted congregational leaders’ call will be held Thursday, May 14, at 1:00 p.m. with Vinny Marchionni, SJ, Maryland Province Jesuits, asking whether we have taken time to mourn what we have lost amidst this pandemic, and reflecting on his own experience of ministerial loss. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to request an invitation to join the conversation.