This past Shabbat we had our first service in our building since March 15, 2020. I think I can say for everyone in attendance that it was very joyous and moving. We had 18 people in the building but the singing was as loud as it usually is with many many more. We did not say “shehecheyanu” because, as I explained, that particular blessing is really meant for events which recur -- and we do not wish to have another “first service after a pandemic shutdown.” We did say a blessing thanking God for being able to return and when the Torah was read all of us present “bentshed gomel” -- the prayer one says upon surviving a dangerous experience.
Over the last 15 months of Zoom-only services we made many adjustments as we learned what works and doesn’t, and as our understanding of how to use Zoom within the bounds of halacha as understood by Conservative Judaism evolved. Our Shabbat morning services are now “hybrid” which means that one can fully participate whether you are present in person in the shul or remotely on Zoom. We will no doubt make changes and adjustments as we go forward. For one thing, since we will now have a minyan present in the building, we will be reading from the Torah scroll once again and this means a somewhat longer service. Therefore as of this coming Shabbat, May 19, we will begin services at 9:30 a.m as we did before the pandemic.
During the service I asked those who participated, whether in person or remotely, to share any feedback they might have to help us figure out what changes and improvements we still need to make. I received a number of emails yesterday and I will respond to each of you personally later today, but there were a couple of themes which emerged and we are working on them. I should also add that the feedback was extremely positive even as suggestions for improvement were made.
I have been saying for some time that a hybrid service is technically much more complicated than a Zoom-only service so let me explain how precisely we did this and why it’s complicated. As you know if you have participated in our Zoom services, there is a sound lag associated with Zoom (or any other live streaming service -- this has to do with physics and not specifically a problem associated only with Zoom.) This is why it’s impossible to sing in unison on Zoom and why we ask you to mute yourself unless you have an active part at the specific time -- if you try to sing along with the leader, they hear you a second or so behind them and it throws them off. You also know that if two people are in the same room but each of them are on a separate Zoom device, it creates an echo or feedback.
So how did we have three Zoom devices in the Sanctuary without creating a sound lag or echo? If you were on Zoom Shabbat morning, you may have noticed that “KS Zoom 1” which was on the table adjacent to my podium and “KS Zoom 3” which was on the Hazzan’s podium and used by Mike Goldman for leading davening, were actually on mute. KS Zoom 2 was a device called a “Facebook Portal.” The camera from this device was aimed at the central bimah (although it is a smart camera and automatically pans and moves) and this was the only microphone we used. This device was connected to our large screen TV and allowed those present to see and hear those participating remotely. Because of the sound lag created by Zoom, if the microphones on KS Zoom 1 and 3 had not been muted, they would have played through the large screen TV as well, creating the familiar Zoom lag, an echo, or feedback. The microphone on the Facebook Portal is omnidirectional and designed to pick up sound from as far away as 20 feet. Later this week, Tom Loggie and I will experiment with different placements of the Portal unit to see if it is possible to alleviate some of the sound difficulties that our remote participants encountered. We’ll also experiment with camera placement and where participants need to stand to maximize their Zoom visibility. If you’re more knowledgeable on some of this tech stuff than I am and have concrete suggestions that don’t involve purchasing additional equipment I would be grateful to receive them.
If we were using Zoom simply as a device for those who are remote to see and hear those who are in the shul, we could use multiple microphones without creating any problems. But since as part of our transition we are committed to letting people fully participate remotely rather than simply observe, for now we can only have one microphone operating inside the sanctuary. However, during the coming week we will see what can be done to make the hybrid experience better and smoother.
As always, if you need to talk or I can do anything for you, please contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office as I continue to work mostly from home, although having been vaccinated I am available for in-person meetings in my synagogue office by request.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian