A NEW item has been added to my regular calendar. Each Friday afternoon, I spend around 20 minutes chatting to my siblings, who are spread between the UK and Israel. We share family news, have a little laugh, and wish each other Shabbat Shalom.
We could have instituted this custom any time in the last few years, ever since videoconferencing technology became ubiquitous and free. But we did not. It has taken the pandemic, and the need to live much of our lives “on Zoom”, to make us realise the possibilities that we already had.
It would be insensitive to determine what has been the “winner” during the corona crisis, but if we could, it would certainly be Zoom. With a tenfold increase in users and a tripling of its share price, this app instantly conquered the world, and became the natural place for meetings, conferences and family gatherings. Despite some security concerns, starting each conversation with “I can see you but can you hear me?”, and the curse of “forgetting to unmute” (and sometimes the greater curse of forgetting to mute) “zooming” has become the natural way to communicate. Providing a Zoom ID when arranging a meeting needs no further explanation.
It’s absolutely not the same as really being there (and, as I know, a very poor substitute for hugging a grandchild); conversations are stilted compared to face to face; and people either talk over each other or not at all, but it’s pretty good.
Zoom has been around for seven years but it took the lockdown to open our eyes to the opportunities that it creates. Not just facilitating transnational family gatherings, but taking communal events, and especially adult education, to a whole new level.
At the start of the crisis, I feared that the closure of our synagogues would separate Jews from what was for many their principal connection to Jewish life. But the shules rose to the challenge. With frequent messages from rabbis and congregational leaders via social media, and learning sessions reaching far more virtual attendees than ever participated physically, this aspect of synagogal life has been more than maintained. Other communal organisations have organised regular lectures and even entire conferences on Zoom.
And we have appreciated more than simply the convenience of attending a class without worrying about transport or babysitters. The target demographics of events have expanded; a talk designed for young people can also be enjoyed discreetly online by the less young (especially as circumstances have encouraged all generations to become tech-savvy). But the greatest change, and one that we must ensure stays with us long after the pandemic, is that the world has become much smaller. The tyranny of distance has been overthrown.
Suddenly, hearing a speaker from afar is just as easy as listening to one of the limited pool of our local experts. With nothing more than the time difference to navigate, we have enjoyed learning from famous names from Israel, from the United States, from the entire Jewish world. In the “old” days, “bringing out” speakers necessitated hefty expenses for travel and accommodation, the challenge of finding a suitable date (and not clashing with another organisation’s plans), and the fear that this would all be wasted if people did not show up. Now, with far less investment and hence far less risk, an event can be held with the click of a mouse.
It works both ways. I have enjoyed giving shiurim “in” Sydney, London and Manchester, (with audiences not restricted to residents of those locations). Later this month, I will be sharing my experiences of how the crisis affected my school at a teachers’ conference in Jerusalem.
Indeed the very concept of “an event in Melbourne” or a “presentation in Sydney” is outdated. Thanks to Zoom, any event can be opened to the entire world and we in Australia can participate in programs organised anywhere else. It may require getting up early or staying up late, but this is a minor inconvenience when the prize is a close connection to cutting-edge Jewish learning.
Where to from here? It is, alas, far too early to talk of the crisis being over, but the far-sighted are already asking which learnings we can take from these months into the future. The use of Zoom (or whatever videoconferencing app appears next) must be among these. We must never return to the days when the only way to meet a colleague was to travel to their workplace, the only way to communicate with far-flung family members was one at a time, and the only way to hear from a top-rate Jewish scholar was to fly them to Australia. The world of Jewish ideas has become much smaller – we must keep it that way.
Rabbi James Kennard is principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College.