Freeze frames from a year of remote communication, virtual connections, and way too much time spent talking through screens
Illustrations: Esti Friedman
Most Miles Traveled
One day in May 2020, during the height of Zoom conferences around the world, I Zoomed a speech at 8 a.m. from my dining room in Kew Gardens, New York, to a lunch conference in London about emunah, where it was 1 p.m. Distance: 3,471 miles.
A few hours later, at 1 p.m., I Zoomed a lecture about shemiras halashon to Cape Town, South Africa, where it was 8 p.m. Distance: 6,778 miles.
That evening at 8 p.m., I Zoomed a conference about chesed for a brunch lecture in Melbourne, Australia, where it was 12 p.m. the next day. Distance: 10,360 miles.
In total, I traveled 20,609 miles from my dining room to give three lectures in three countries (England, South Africa, and Australia) in a single day. No jet lag, no masks, no airline meals. No complaints.
Round trip? 41,218 miles. After all, there’s no place like home.
Rabbi Paysach Krohn is a mohel, writer, and speaker.
Most Bittersweet Session
Reb Abish Eisen ztz”l, who passed away this Shevat, was a throwback to old Jerusalem. He existed in This World, yet he lived in the otherworldly dimension of Yerushalayim Shel Maalah, immersed in the wisdom of psak halachah and the study of Kabbalah. Reb Abish’s warmth, humility, and old-world charm endeared him to all, and many talmidim drew close to drink from his fountains of wisdom.
One talmid was a dear friend of mine: Tzvi. Much like Reb Abish, Tzvi kept his brilliant Talmudic prowess veiled by his radiant smile and gushing warmth. While we all knew of Tzvi’s stature as a tremendous talmid chacham with wonderful middos, some of us only learned of his Torah greatness after he left This World.
Only a short while before his tragic passing, Tzvi went to America for treatments, leaving his hopeful family in Eretz Yisrael. He celebrated the engagement of his son from his hospital bed. At the vort, a Zoom session was set up for him to watch from afar and for friends and family to wish him well. To everyone’s great surprise, Reb Abish — who avoided modern technology at any cost — approached the computer to wish mazel tov to Tzvi and give him chizuk. With his natural grace and glowing smile, he offered words of encouragement and blessing.
Then, as Reb Abish moved away from the screen, he paled and seemed to lose his composure.
Someone posited that it was an expression of his discomfort with using technology, the antithesis of his lofty existence. I disagreed. It was the pitiful plight of his beloved talmid that had left him shuddering, trembling, and pained.
Rabbi Akiva Fox teaches at Imrei Binah and Lev Aharon and is a writer and lecturer.
He lives in Ramat Eshkol, Jerusalem.
Last summer, we held a major training session for 500 new interns. The opening session was called for noon, but minutes before it was set to launch, we realized we had a problem — only 100 people were in the session that over 500 people registered for. Afterward we found out that even though we had paid for a Zoom account allowing 1,000 participants, one user has to be “koneh” the meeting, to sign in and make it “chal.” In the end, we recorded the session and sent it out to the 400-plus people who couldn’t get in — and learned our lesson for next time.
AND BEST DECISION
You know how when you all go to the conference room for a Zoom meeting, it’s sort of awkward, with people craning their necks at strange angles? We invested in an Owl camera — it works at 360 degrees — and then we got little iPads for every seat, so everyone can look straight ahead. The whole meeting is at one angle, and it flows much better.
Ira Zlotowitz is president of Eastern Union Funding, one of America’s largest commercial mortgage brokerage firms.
MOST TIMELY RENO
I use Zoom multiple hours daily, and I always wondered what people thought of the office supply shelf behind my chair — not the most professional background. During Chanukah vacation last year, I finally decided to do something about it.
First we cleared and painted the wall. Then we sat with the Zoom camera on and positioned a modern Bircas Ha’esek artwork on it, and we rearranged the items on the bookshelf according to the angle from the desk. The artwork isn’t centered on the wall — it’s actually centered between where I sit and the bookshelf, so it looks right on Zoom. Perfect timing, because right after Chanukah, I started pitching my startup to investors.
We’re now designing a new office, and once again I’m thinking about how things will look on Zoom. Of course, an interior designer we know emphatically said, “You don’t design an office around Zoom.” But in our strange new normal, I’m still seeing things through Zoom eyes.
Yaakov (Jacob) Davis is a CTO and cofounder of Boutique Seller,
an Amazon advertising agency, and Bizfluence, an up-and-coming
social-business networking platform. He lives in Yishuv Neria, Israel.
MOST MEMORABLE NON-SEDER
“Now, we drink while leaning to the left,” my husband said, reclining in his chair, “And then we’ll move on to Urchatz.”
Half a dozen squares on our screen showed images of my father, aunts, and cousins chugging their wine. My family had joined us for a Zoom mock-Seder on Erev Pesach, well before candle-lighting. When everyone had drained their glasses. I picked up the laptop and carried it into the kitchen, setting it down on the counter so we could do Urchatz “together.”
“Hey. Helen,” my cousin in California said, “Your kitchen’s covered in foil. Is that… you know… a thing?”
As a baalas teshuvah, I was the only family member with a kitchen that was kosher l’Pesach, and the only one making a real Seder that night. My family had made plans to come to us and spend time with our new son for the holidays, but COVID derailed those plans.
“Yes, it’s a thing,” I explained. “It doesn’t have to be foil, but our counters have to be covered with something because of the material they’re made of.”
“Ah, okay,” said my aunt in Chicago. “I was wondering about that, too.”
My husband and I came back to the table, and as we worked our way through the Haggadah, I felt a swell of gratitude for the technology that allowed my non-observant family across the country to share a taste of the chag.
Later, I felt a burst of pride when we exclaimed, “Next year in Jerusalem!” and my aunts added an enthusiastic, “Well, either that or Helen’s house!” Since then, my family has been planning for all the wonderful, kosher chagim we’ll share in person soon, b’ezras Hashem.
Helen Shere is a financial coach, curriculum writer, and hot sauce connoisseur in the Midwest.
When you stutter on Zoom, the others just think your screen froze for a few seconds — not the same as stuttering in real life. An unexpected benefit for this real-life stutterer!
Moe Mernick is the COO at Partners in Torah, producer of Daf Yomi MoeMents, and author of Mishpacha’s 5 to 9 business column.
FIVE THINGS I LEARNED IN ZOOM THERAPY
- It can be super cool to attend therapy from the shoulder up. You can show up in pajamas. You can wear fluffy slippers, ankle socks, or keep your feet bare, for all the therapist cares. You can sit on your comfortable couch (or bed) with all the conveniences of home.
- There’s a flipside, though. Therapy is the last place you want to experience computer glitches, technology malfunctions, and a time lag. And having your crying self frozen in time across your therapist’s screen feels a lot more awkward than taking a tissue and moving on.
- For all the ease of access, as a client, you do have to be prepared to do some more of the nitty-gritty driving the conversation work when you’re not in a face-to-face session. Like taking the initiative to tell the therapist how you’re feeling, instead of slouching down in the chair furthest away from hers and hoping she’ll infer something. Without the shared space, the positioning, the body language, there’s less for the therapist to zoom in on (sorry, couldn’t resist). Even facial expression is just not the same across a screen (especially when you have that time lag).
- That being said, the resources and services available online are actually wow. Back in ancient times, circa 2019, you had to schedule an appointment, find a babysitter, drive half an hour (more in traffic), walk around the block six times (because there was no traffic, so you’re 20 minutes early), sneak inside the building watching over your shoulder lest someone see (chalilah), and then repeat all in reverse on your return. Therapy in your living room? With therapists all over the world? With way more flexibility of timing, services, and even rates? Not complaining about that.
- Final analysis: When you’ve got no choice, you take what you can get — and if that’s the shoulders and head of a therapist whose sound doesn’t quite match the lip movements — you can deal with it (at least, I could). But after a year as a Zoom client, I’m pretty certain there’s something about in-person therapy that even the best technology can never replace. It’s the experiential element, the deep healing. It’s more than talking about it, it’s about being in it. It’s hard to have someone “hold your space” on the other side of a screen.
All in all? I’m looking forward to being able to return to face-to-face therapy someday. Just gotta dig out those shoes.
Kayla Zwiebel is a part-time writer and full-time mom in Jerusalem.
MOST POINTLESS SHTICK
As a teacher of middle school boys who had to teach via Zoom during lockdown, I wasn’t overly concerned about what my students saw behind me when they logged on. A pile of laundry to my left? Eh, no biggie. An empty soda can next to the smashed remains of my midday bag of chips? That didn’t register, even to me, as I logged on and stared at the screen. All I noticed were the 23 (so many absences, for sure WiFi issues) eager faces (#storieswetellourselves).
During the next lockdown, a local girls school commissioned me to arrange an author-speak five-day interview series to educate, and dare I say, entertain (hey, we authors are a fun bunch) their students.
My 23 students is one thing, but hundreds of students (girls, no less!) and their siblings and parents were a whole different story. Plus, I was interviewing the greats, editors and writers whose names you’d recognize, including legendary David A. Adler, author of the Cam Jansen series.
Who wants to look light gray? Not I! Cue the Zoom “touch up my appearance” filter. We also managed to make a wonderful laptop-screen size backdrop that gave the (false) impression that I was filming from a cozy little nook in my home.
But the perfectly sterile background was boring. So I proposed that we changed the picture or painting on the anterior wall, every day — drawing on old wedding gifts, hand-painted numbers by my son, and more.
It still didn’t feel exciting enough, so I decided to change my glasses every day, segueing from square plastic frames to the frameless quadrilaterals, from the sequin-studded metal glasses to the brushed gold floral design. I even got into matching what was on my face with what was on my wall. Do I go funky butterfly canvas with staid schoolmarm specs? Or keep it streamlined with conservative nature scene and straight-laced black glasses?
I was giddy with excitement.
It was all for naught; nobody noticed. And why would they? Who looks at the interviewer when the faces of writers you know are finally revealed — along with a glimpse into their homes?
But the exercise definitely made my family a lot more aware when we Zoomed (“Ema, that guy over there doesn’t realize his dog is eating from the garbage”). I appreciated what jumped out at me when I joined meetings with my colleagues. And it definitely forced me to look inward and reflect — do my students assume I vacuum my room with such regularity that the Dyson is a permanent fixture behind me during class?
PSA: Morah is a grammar, not a neat, freak.
Chaia Frishman is a freelance writer and teaches non-judgmental sixth graders at Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway, New York.
LEAST CONSEQUENTIAL EPIPHANY
I’ve experienced a coming of age regarding Zoom. When we all started Zooming, I was working from home. If I had to join an office meeting, I’d make sure the video was off and I was muted. For good measure, I’d stick a piece of masking tape on the small eye crowning my laptop… just in case. As Zooming became more prevalent, I’d participate within my comfort zone. A funeral? No video, make sure to mute, edit to show my full name. A wedding? Type in our family name to show the baalei simchah we joined, mute, and don’t play with my screen… just in case. I’d join the celebration along with all the other viewers — the family, the friends, the woman chewing gum, the guy hanging out in his T-shirt, the lady yapping on her cell.
And I would wonder, Don’t they know about the masking tape?
As Zoom became more necessary and face-to-face meetings became unavoidable, I responded by tinkering with backgrounds and trying to find a spot with decent lighting and practicing intelligent facial expressions in the mirror. And I became more comfortable, discarding the masking tape and applying a little more make-up.
Still, the conversations would be punctuated by quick and frequent glances at my image in the box on the right, a subconscious checklist running through my mind: Too many hand movements? Stray hair sticking out at an odd angle? Cynical glint in my eye while aspiring for a professional look? I’d adjust the angle of my screen when I leaned back, and I’d readjust it when I sat forward. It was hard to be more interested in the person I was speaking to than in my own appearance.
I guess you get used to anything because finally, I had an inelegant epiphany that went something like this: “Who cares?”
Who really cares that I don’t look perfect? The person on the other side is probably searching for her own epiphany. And most would agree, we all look a little sketchy on Zoom.
So we just try our best. We clear the bookshelves behind our chairs, run a comb through our hair, and click “Join meeting.” I figure if I’m not interested in keeping score on myself, why would anyone else want to?
I recently joined a school open house, with my daughter hovering out of range. She moved in for a closer look, gasped and hissed frantically, “Ma! Your video is on!”
Yeah, I know.
Baila Rosenbaum is a writer who lives with her family in lower Manhattan.
Behind the Platform: A closer look at Zoom
“Zoom” used to be a word for five-year-old boys, but we all know it has since grown up and become the bane of many employees’ existence. The videoconferencing software that became a ubiquitous savior during the early pandemic days is still the leader in its field.
Started in 2011 by former Cisco executive Eric Yuan, Zoom was a classic case of “see a problem, create a solution.” Two years and two rounds of fundraising later, their first product was born, and it’s been a darling since day one with consistent, quality performance and easy access. When Zoom went public in 2019, the stock value jumped 80 percent in one day! Interestingly, of all the very public IPOs of the past year, Zoom was the only one that was already profitable; companies like Uber, Lyft, and Pinterest were still in the red when they went public.
Zoom’s founder Eric Yuan is a walking, talking, money-making American Dream. Yuan was born, raised, and educated in China. When he decided he wanted to be at the center of technology’s evolution, he knew he belonged in one place — Silicon Valley. Yuan applied for an H-1B visa for skilled workers and was rejected seven times before his eighth application was finally accepted. Yuan’s first job was at Webex, an innovator in the web conferencing arena. Today he’s a billionaire.
There are many people, especially those committed to 40-minute meetings, who wonder how Zoom makes money if it’s free. The answer: It’s free for plebeians, but if you need anything more, it costs you, because it runs on a Freemium-SaaS model. “Freemium” means that the basic version of the product is free, with purchasing options for users who require more than that, and “saas” stands for software-as-a-service — similar to how you now have to buy Microsoft Office every year, instead of a one-time purchase that automatically updates.
Zoom offers four levels of access: Basic, which is free; Professional, at $15 a month; and Business and Enterprise levels, which start at $20 a month (with host minimums — it’s not that cheap). Each level offers a variety of features like customer personal meeting ID, cloud space for recording, vanity URLs, managed domains, custom emails, and more. Zoom has more than 265,000 paying customers with more than ten users per account.
Interestingly, Zoom was created with the Enterprise customer in mind, and the features that made it so easy and appealing to those users are what caused a massive hiccup early in the pandemic. Zoom’s original vision valued frictionless usage over security, so things like putting the meeting ID on the page for all to see and lack of passwords were intentional for its relatively small, curated user base.
Then the pandemic hit, and everyone was Zooming. Yuan saw a tweet by English prime minister Boris Johnson that included a screenshot of the prime minister’s Cabinet Zoom meeting, along with a lot of sensitive data Johnson wasn’t aware he was sharing. Other problems with Zoom were its lack of end-to-end encryption, as well as the fact that data was routed through Chinese servers, making Americans skittish. And let’s not forget Zoom-bombings, when uninvited parties join Zoom calls to disrupt the meeting, sharing racist, anti-Semitic, violent, and other extreme content.
Despite these missteps (which Zoom did address), it has remained the videoconference platform of choice throughout the pandemic, for several reasons. Its free model is pretty robust, and its 40-minute limit for a free meeting tends to be sufficient for most users. Not having to download software to join a meeting is a plus, and sending out meeting links is a breeze, as is clicking on them. For platforms like FaceTime and Google Meet, you need to have an account. Some, like Skype, don’t have breakout rooms, waiting rooms, or virtual backgrounds, and others allow very limited numbers of participants or meetings per month.
Zoom’s stock value has increased sevenfold since its IPO. It did see a dip in November, when news of the COVID vaccine came out, and while usage is expected to decrease from its current high, remote work is here to stay, and with it, the demand for reliable videoconferencing.
That goes for individuals, too. Now that attending events remotely is an option, expect to see it at many simchahs going forward—just because Great-Aunt Susanna lives in Boca, it doesn’t mean she can’t join your son’s upsheren. Whether you love Zoom or hate it, it’s become like Band-Aids, Google, and Scotch-tape: a brand so essential to daily life, it’s a basic noun.
by Esther Kurtz
zoomTO YOUR BASHERT
MOST-SUCCESSFUL DATING EXPERIENCE
Before my recent engagement and subsequent remarriage during COVID, I couldn’t figure out how couples get around restrictions when it comes to dating. During the winter, outdoor dating was a challenge as temperatures dipped into the 30s and hitting the trail of a state park was no longer a viable option. In fact, my husband and I met three times via Zoom before he drove to meet me in person.
Perhaps the best part of Zoom dating is that you can learn about your potential spouse in ways that are not usually revealed on a date. Such as the neat freak who Zoom-dated a girl whose dirty laundry was strewn on the floor behind her desk (Not only is she not neat, she’s also not so wise — why didn’t she clean up the mess behind her?!). Or the girl who discovered how fond her date really was of cats when Taffy made a cameo appearance during their Zoom date.
As a mother of seven boys, kein ayin hara, my heart goes out to guys who invest effort, time, and money to travel to meet a girl only to experience a one-and-done or two-and-through. I also have a soft spot for girls whose dates are few and far between because they don’t live within daled amos of the guy’s desired dating “territory.” Zoom is the great equalizer, providing opportunities like never before.
Margie Pensak is a frequent contributor to Mishpacha, a seasoned shadchan, and a recent newlywed.
LEAST-SUCCESSFUL DATING EXPERIENCE
You’d think my out-of-town clientele would be perfectly primed for Zoom dating, but most singles I work with prefer to date in person, even during COVID. And I can’t say I disagree! One of my couples met on Zoom and then continued in real life, but it fell apart because, according to the girl, his style and confidence weren’t the same as on screen.
Recently I set up a boy from New York with a girl from the opposite corner of the US. They met on Zoom, and after that she said a real date didn’t make sense, because they weren’t a match. He felt shortchanged — the Zoom date was artificial, he said, and had they met in person, it could have gone further. I don’t know that he’s wrong; Zoom dating is awkward and can feel stilted, and lacks the dynamics of real dating.
I still offer Zoom as an option — it does save travel time, especially in times when people can’t travel —but let’s be honest: There’s nothing like meeting in person.
Rivkie Levitin is a shadchan in the Midwest.
NO SINGLE LEFT BEHIND
In the early days of the pandemic, we organized a program to remain proactive on behalf of our singles, to keep members engaged (pardon the pun) so they’d continue to benefit from the Rebbetzins Network, an Oorah program that helps people with a baal teshuvah background navigate the challenging process of shidduchim.
We came up with the idea of Zoom Chat, where we grouped five single guys and five single gals into different Zoom rooms according to age and hashkafah, each with its own shadchan to facilitate introductions, moderate topics, and keep their fingers on the pulse. Our pilot program consisted of 30 singles — three rooms — and we had sessions over three nights.
And what feedback we got! Singles were starved for momentum in the shidduch process, and this was a great start for us to remain proactive on their behalf.
In May and June, we hosted Zoom speed-dating events, where couples met one on one. The singles, especially those from out of town, felt the playing field was finally even, and many considered suggestions they’d declined in the past. Distance didn’t matter, and getting acquainted informally became the norm. Several couples dated a handful of times.
Our singles really appreciated our efforts — and baruch Hashem, we had two engagements from a Zoom shadchan meet we held in July, where singles met three different shadchanim one-on-one. Mazel tov!
Raizelle Serebrowski is the director of Oorah’s Rebbetzins program.
MOST MAKESHIFT GREEN SCREEN
Of course, it was only about an hour before my huge virtual “Chopped” kiruv event when I realized that the video timer I uploaded to run on my uber-professional Zoom background would work only with a green screen. So I dashed around my house rummaging through closets, trying to find something bright green that would work. Why would I even have anything that color here, other than the dreaded slime the kids always manage to win in camp? If I looked hard enough, I was sure I’d find some mashed between the sofa cushions—would it work if I smear it on the wall behind me?
But then, a COVID miracle! I found a stack of perfectly, beautifully, blindingly acid green folders from the school’s free school supplies fair (bless you, Cincinnati Hebrew Day School!). As the angels sang, I quickly snipped, taped, and adjusted until I’d cobbled together a workable backdrop — even if it was slightly crooked, a couple inches too short, and held up with way too much Scotch tape. It was green, and it was perfect.
Kayla Soroka works in Jewish outreach and education at the Cincinnati Community Kollel and is a teacher at Atara Girls High School in Cincinnati, Ohio.
MOST CONSISTENT ERROR
Every Zoom meeting, I spend at least one or two minutes straight speaking on mute until I finally realize. Every. Time. But that’s not all — we once spent the first 15 minutes of a meeting trying to figure out why there were six people on but I couldn’t hear a word. After a thorough investigation, troubleshooting, me leaving and joining the meeting a few times, I realized… my volume was off.
Bunim Laskin is the CEO of Swimply.
MOST RESPONSIBLE MEETING HOST
Last summer zeman, I got to experience Zoom in its full glory as a talmid at Toras Moshe. With over 70 talmidim and alumni spanning five continents, ten time zones, and dozens of cities, the Rosh Yeshivah Rav Moshe Meiselman’s shiur was transformed into an international lomdus conglomerate.
The Zoom experience was more relaxed than a regular, in-person shiur, with everyone joining in from the comfort of their own homes… except for those of us who had stayed behind in Israel. We had the special zechus of dealing with all the stress involved in making this Zoom Seder run smoothly.
Because of the Rosh Yeshivah’s unfamiliarity with the platform — and the fact that we were the only ones in constant contact with the Rosh Yeshivah — we were the official “co-hosts” of the meetings. So there we were, armed to the teeth with Nescafé gold Brazilian brew instant coffee and our technical setup: a huge monitor on gallery view to make sure there were no snackers whose cameras needed closing or whistlers whose mikes needed muting.
Or at least, we did that for the first shiur, until we decided to add a little excitement to the mix. See, one of the advantages of gallery view is you can see when someone is about to sneeze. We learned that if you time it juuuust right, you can unmute the offending party right before he lets out his burst, allowing his screen to become the main screen for those watching on main view (which focuses on the current speaker), before quickly re-muting him to cover up for our interference.
The next time around, five guys were accidentally unmuted, which was distracting, and we couldn’t locate the culprits when paging through all the gallery screens. We had the incredibly resourceful idea to press “mute all.” Unfortunately, the Rosh Yeshivah was included in that “all,” and he was muted. Mid-sentence. After much frantic clicking, we successfully unmuted him, allowing him to continue delivering his shiur as planned. Crisis averted due to our astute, dedicated work to tirelessly ensure the success of our yeshivah’s limud haTorah, even in the hardest of times.
Boaz Bachrach is a student at Ohr Hachaim-Lander College for Men in Queens, New York.
LONGEST ZOOM SESSION
Rosh Chodesh Kislev is the anniversary of the day the Lubavitche Rebbe returned to function after surviving a heart attack. The annual Chabad Kinnos Hashluchim is always held on that auspicious day, and this year was no different — aside from the fact that this year, we probably set a world record for longest and most wide-ranging Zoom session of all time.
Our Kinnos started with a Melaveh Malkah farbrengen on Motzaei Shabbos in Australia, and over the course of several days, it moved around the world, to Eretz Yisrael, to Asia, to Africa, to the United States to South Africa, ending in Alaska on Friday.
Zoom can accommodate “only” 1,000 people at a time, so we added streaming services over the week. Eventually we had multiple thousands of people watching from “outside” the room via streaming, taking part that way.
The more informal format of the Kinnos allowed for some very special moments. Members of the Rebbe’s medical team joined us and shared new details and memories, and that in turn moved others to share their personal memories, as well. It ended up being extraordinary, with new stories, new insights, new dimensions. Saying “l’chayim” over Zoom isn’t the same as doing it face-to-face, but a chassid learns how to do this, too.
Some participants were in New York, which had restrictions but wasn’t really locked down, while other shluchim were under total lockdown or quarantine and could not leave their homes at all. During the Kinus, they davened next to the screen, putting on tallis and tefillin in front of the farbregen. They were so happy to connect with a tzibbur in some fashion, even if it wasn’t a halachic minyan. It was interesting to see shluchim do for themselves what they normally do for other people — and I saw firsthand why we don’t underestimate the chizuk one gets from seeing another Yid.
Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky is the executive director of Merkos 302, an umbrella organization that supplies services and support for approximately 5,000 centers of the Chabad Lubavitch Movement.
MY TWO CENTS
1 Never go on mute and work on something else during a Zoom meeting — you don’t want to be that person who says, “Um, uh, can you ask that question again?” Everyone will know you weren’t listening.
2 A Go-Pro camera is a great alternative to the computer camera because it gives a wide screen view. If you have a home office you’re proud of, it’s a nice little touch.
Moshe Hecht is a philanthropy futurist, co-owner of Charidy, and CEO of a Stealth Startup.
A design agency offered to create a personalized virtual background for me, something that tells my brand’s story visually — and it’s been incredible for my Zoom meetings. One CEO said, “You work with all those companies? Well then, what do I have to do to get up on that wall?”
Hillel Fuld is a startup advisor, tech blogger, and international speaker.
LEAST APPRECIATED FEATURE
My husband and I psyched ourselves up for our Zoom interview about our impending aliyah with the Jewish Agency. The hour arrived, we logged on, and lo and behold, my son had programmed our account so that there were crazy thick jumping eyebrows and mustaches on the screen… and we couldn’t figure out how to get rid of them.
My son wasn’t home, so we just went ahead with the interview and tried to ignore them. Here we were trying to be professional and capable, but we looked nuts.
At one point, the interviewer asked, “Why do you want to make aliyah?”
“Well, you might think we’re a bit weird,” I began.
“Oh yeah, only a bit!” she responded.
It did help break the ice, because we were nervous before that — and when my son got home, he showed us how to remove them.
Leah Green is a writer who is eagerly awaiting her chance to make aliyah.
First Remote orchestra
In a word, a Zoom orchestra is magic. But making it work right is a lot more prosaic.
I’ve been a recording artist and music producer for 20 years, but bringing the first Zoom-recorded orchestra together for our community was entirely new ground. It took me two weeks straight of research, work, and testing. I worked on this project 12 hours a day, looking up techniques and tutorials, trying it one way: Nope, not good. Another way: nope, not good. The Zoom technology has been there for a long time, but I had to figure out how to achieve perfect musical harmony and coordination on it.
It was a labor of love — I couldn’t give up. The Zoom orchestra for my song “Nodeh Lecha” had to happen, because I had such a sense of urgency to share my prayer of gratitude.
What propelled me goes back to the Friday night in March when I lay in the hospital, struggling to breathe, my oxygen levels somewhere in the low eighties, the youngest guy in the COVID ward by around 30 years. Four nurses gathered around, completely stymied. This was in the earliest days of the pandemic, and the staff had no idea what to do. I realized I couldn’t breathe; that night, in my mind, I said goodbye to my family and friends.
Baruch Hashem I did recover, and I returned home on March 24 in a very weakened state. I was fueled by something beyond me, by the need to focus on thanks to Hashem. My best friend and bandmate Gadi Fuchs had composed “Nodeh Lecha” several years ago. I worked on it for the past three years and hadn’t released it, but now the time had come. After I got home, I recorded a raw version and sent it out. When it got 100,000 hits over the next couple of days, I realized I had to do this for real. And there was no other way to produce it but on Zoom.
I am blessed to have been part of the New York music scene all my life, and I’ve developed beautiful relationships with the top musicians in the city. They were so gracious and willing to be part of my song of gratitude — not one of them would take a dollar in payment. I was honored to have my rebbi, Rav Daniel Kohn, the rav of Bat Ayin, playing the clarinet, with religious, non-religious, and non-Jewish musicians coming together for this song. It was a true kiddush Hashem.
The chochmah was in the technicalities. Each musician had to video themselves, and none of them are videographers. By now Zoom is mainstream and normal, but a year ago, this meant coaching each one on where to place the audio equipment and the camera. I had to position and reposition every one of those cameras. Each musician could see and hear only themselves, which was a major challenge. Each one had his sheet music and his metronome, but in order for everyone to nail their parts, I had to explain the music in advance, giving them my vision for the musical dynamic. Sometimes I had to speak it through musically, sometimes I had to sing it for them. Each musician had to play his part around five times until it was perfect. Then came the mixing.
I had asked Yisroel Lamm to cowrite the arrangements because this was so sentimental for me. I wanted something traditional, rooted in the sounds of my childhood, and it was heartwarming to hear the Lamm touch applied to this piece, especially the ending in his classic style.
What came from this massive undertaking is otherworldly, and the feedback has been indescribable. I keep hearing that the music continues to touch people all over the world during a very rough time.
At the end of the day, nothing can replace live music, and Zoom will never substitute for soaking up the sights and sounds of musicians producing magic right there in the room as they do it. But during those weeks when we were shut inside, alone and afraid, the message of “Nodeh Lecha” managed to compensate for the medium — because the message was all about gratitude.
Eli Schwebel is a Brooklyn, New York-based recording artist, music producer, filmmaker, and entrepreneur.
WORST BACKGROUND EVER
A potential client had a fake messy kitchen as a background. When I asked why he would use something like that, he replied, “Like this, we can start the call with a laugh.” We did!
Meny Hoffman is the CEO of Ptex Group.
WORST BACKGROUND I SAW
The Golden Gate Bridge — it seemed to be swaying the whole time behind the person I was meeting with, which was very dizzying.
…AND BEST MISTAKE I MADE
Putting in the wrong ID and joining a different meeting by mistake. That meeting actually led to a business opportunity!
Menachem Lubinsky is CEO of Lubicom Business Consulting, a leading authority on business management and marketing, founder and co-producer of Kosherfest, and editor of KosherToday.com.
MOST VIPS IN ONE MEETING
I remember a high-level dialogue between members of the Jewish Funders Network and Major General Roni Numa, who was serving as the coronavirus czar for Israel’s chareidi community in May of last year. As he listened to the various positions, I thought about how this sort of meeting could never have taken place without Zoom. To assemble such a diverse group of busy, prominent people from all over would have taken months, and even then, overlapping schedules would have meant the meeting would be brief, with no time for a real exchange of ideas.
But there we were, everyone in their own homes, no real rush to go anywhere — because there was nowhere to go. Numa asked questions and got answers. He learned many new things, as did we all. That meeting resulted in the production of Yariv Mozer’s “B’chasdei Shamayim,” a very favorable documentary about the chareidi community’s response to the virus.
It was the blessing of Zoom that allowed for it.
Eli Paley is publisher of Mishpacha Magazine and chairman of the Haredi Institute.
MOST UNLIKELY PARTICIPANT
One of our most successful clients uses our software to sell his service. And it’s a pretty unique service — he rents out live goats to attend Zoom meetings, they bring laughter to usually stodgy meetings. Imagine it: a gallery of squares that are all your coworkers’ faces, and one square has a goat looking straight at the camera. I never used it myself, but I can tell you he has had many, many customers — it’s pretty funny!
Nachum Kligman is the cofounder and CEO of Book Like A Boss software and the author of The Frum Entrepreneur: Turn Your Dreams into Reality.
MOST IMPROMPTU VIRTUAL HANDSHAKES
I walked into a friend’s office when he was wrapping up a Zoom call with a firm. He introduced me to the participants, and we ended up doing business together. Another time we were planning a concert on a Zoom meeting, discussing who we could get as the main performer. I mentioned the name of a big singer, but how could we get him? — and boom, one of the participants turned his camera around, and there he was with the singer. We closed the deal right there.
… AND MOST FACEPALM-WORTHY POSTSCRIPT
I was in a hotel lobby working in the summer, and I wanted to hang up so I told everyone I needed to go. Fifteen minutes later, one of the participants walked into the hotel.
Shlome Steinmetz is the CEO of Pivot Group, NYC.
MOST ENTHUSIASTIC VIEWER
The music is booming “Od Yishama,” the lights are shining, the badeken is underway. Everyone is smiling, and my brother has never looked happier. And then … everything freezes.
“What’s going on?”
“I’m not sure,” my wife responds. “Maybe the Wi-Fi went down?”
Helpless, we stare at the screen and pray that it resumes. Hashem please, let us be able to at least watch Ari’s wedding…
Living in Eretz Yisrael has been an incredible experience for us, but the hardest part is being so far from our families. Still, when it comes to simchahs, you assume you’ll always be there. Until your brother gets engaged during a pandemic, and several months later, Israel announces it’s closing its airport — the night of the wedding.
So here we are. It’s 2:15 a.m. in Jerusalem, and quasi-dressed for the occasion — suit, tie, and shorts — I watch as slowly, the wedding comes back to life. The connection is up again, and the men continue dancing Ari toward his kallah, Chavie.
My wife and I relax and enjoy the show. Is this hard? It’s excruciating. We’re a few years apart, but Ari and I are the family’s two brothers closest in age. When we weren’t killing each other, we were doing everything together. School, yeshivah, Little League, camp, we basically did it all one after the other. Ari was learning in Israel when I came here as a newlywed — he actually stocked our apartment. And now all I want to do is reach through the screen, grab Ari and hug him and tell him how happy we are. Instead, we FaceTime in the chassan’s room before the chuppah (my apologies for slightly delaying the proceedings).
As the wedding progresses, I realize there is nothing I can do, aside for being happy for Ari and Chavie. And that is what we do. We dance in our living room, we make a l’chayim, and we thank Hashem that we are happy, healthy, and living the dream.
Rabbi Binny Geizhals is a student in The Jerusalem Kollel.
MOST AWKWARD MOMENT
I set up a private Zoom performance between a Japanese client of mine and a famous Italian singer who happens to be blind. My client was sitting on the couch with his son, and while breaking the ice and chatting with the performer before he began singing, my client pulled out his phone to show a picture of the two of them when they had once met.
“Can you see — do you remember meeting me?”
I had hired a translator so the two of them could communicate. Turns out, awkward silence is universally understood. The poor interpreter didn’t know where to put herself!
Israel (Yummy) Schachter is the CEO of CharityBids.
MOST INFORMAL PARTICIPANT
Erev Pesach 2020. It’s too early for the human brain to function unsupplemented. I need coffee — lots of it. I close my eyes and begin to make a brachah. “Baruch atah A… Aharon, did you have to be a boy?!” This roar of anguish is directed at my four-year-old who, though sleeping peacefully, has just ruined my morning. Aharon, my bechor, is too young to fast taanis bechoros himself — so the brunt falls on me. Why couldn’t I remember that a father must fast for a firstborn son until he’s bar mitzvah after my coffee?
I scramble for my computer and scroll through emails about Pesach and pandemics. Somewhere, I know, is the link my shul sent to a siyum. Bingo. I find it right on time — the siyum is about to start.
Something about sitting in my pajamas holding an overly tempting cup of coffee seeking to acquit myself from fasting obligations by joining a virtual siyum taking place a million miles away feels ridiculous and suspiciously un-halachic. No time for questions, though, so I join.
Huh? Why is Hagrid in his “You’re a wizard, Harry” pose on the screen? And why does it look so familiar? Oh no — that’s my T-shirt I’m seeing (as is everyone else!). I jab the “Video off” button, hoping I can still be mitztaref albeit unseen (I check later — the Mishnah Berurah doesn’t discuss this scenario).
Takeaway? Oh, I don’t know. Make your own siyum on Erev Pesach? Don’t wear Harry Potter pajamas? Whatever. Something tells me this won’t happen again…
Shmuel Botnick is a real estate lawyer at Ulmer & Berne LLP in Cincinnati, Ohio.
We did a Purim event for Project Makom where the baal teshuvah staff members had to pronounce and translate Yiddish phrases that our formerly chassidish members had assigned to us — it was a blast! In the middle, our Director of Member Services Ben Madsen started switching up backgrounds for fun. He did one with Kim Jong Un, just the two of them sitting there “together.” We all lost it.
Allison Josephs is the founder and director of Jew in the City.
Gam Zoom Ya’avor
by Bracha Stein
There’s something magical about meetings: a synergy acquired when creatives meet to sling around ideas, formulate plans, and stuffy boardrooms flower to life as the easy back-and-forth banter blossoms with a whole so much greater than the sum of its parts.
Zoom, though. Zoom has none of that. It truly is the worst of all worlds: a meeting, but the only food served is the same leftovers that stared you in the face the past 200 times you opened the fridge today. PowerPoint presentations, but no opportunity to exchange a smirk with the friend sitting next to you. No compliments on your shoes, but you still need to wear a sheitel. Plus the added benefit of all your colleagues getting a very becoming nose-first view of your face.
But you work from home now, the whole world is home now, so Zoom it is. That stuffy boardroom is your bedroom, or study, or hall closet — any room with a door you can lock. Because here’s the other thing: In the office, your meetings were held in your nice professional office during your nice professional office hours. But now that you’ve gone remote, time is a thing of the past, everyone’s schedules are ephemeral, your overseas coworkers are joining the meeting, and they all want to meet at Bedtime o’Clock.
Forget curating the perfect background shelfie, your only goal is keeping the kids and laundry out of the background. So you bribe the husband and threaten the kids (or vice versa, I’m not getting involved in your shalom bayis) and settle in your locked room, click Enter Meeting, and watch as the little squares pop up, each containing someone who looks one hundred times more functional than you but whom you secretly suspect is just as thrilled as you to be here.
But fear not. Hashem, in His infinite mercy, has bestowed us with a gift of immeasurable value: the mute button. And so you sign in, bare your teeth in what you hope passes as a smile, then click the little microphone with an audible sigh of relief that — thank you Hashem — no one hears as they all rush to press their own mute buttons.
If the mute mic is a first responder from Hatzolah, the “Turn off my camera” is a critical-care ambulance, summoned when your son runs screaming into the room, followed by your other screaming son, and also, his nose is bleeding, and also, he’s brandishing a baseball bat.
But hopefully you won’t need to do that just yet, and so the meeting is progressing nicely, with you making what you hope is confident eye contact at your webcam while you try to look engaged as you ignore the screaming just outside the door (where is your husband? You bribed and/or threatened him!) and attempt to nod knowingly at appropriate intervals.
And it works. For at least five minutes, till the first kid wanders in, all, “Maaaaaaaa, I nee—oh.” And then the next. Because you forgot to lock up again after opening the door to get your crying baby, because of course she started banging on the door 30 seconds into your boss’s introduction (but it’s fine, babies are not distractions — people go viral all the time when their babies lurch into their broadcasts, which makes her practically a professional tool, as long as you can keep her away from the keyboard).
And somewhere, your phone is ringing and supper’s burning, and seriously, where is your husband, and then another kid is in the room, peeking over your shoulder, wanting to know is that your boss and why does she keep talking and talking and thank you Hashem the mute button is still on and oh wait, are they talking to you? Yes they are, and so you need to quickly toggle off the mute and bluster an answer. “Oh, sure, I completely agree with… her, and I think that sounds very… effective. And I agree.”
So yes, Zoom probably will bring about the end of civilized life, or at least your professional career. And it gets worse: This meeting is going to last for another two hours.
So hold on tight, grit your teeth, and wait for that beacon of hope, that ray of light peeking through the clouds, that moment when, together as one, we can unite and press Leave Meeting.
But until then, for goodness’ sake, stay on mute.
BIGGEST, HAPPIEST FAMILY
During a major winter blackout a few months ago, our Zoom daf yomi shiur went down. Once, twice, even though our maggid shiur, Reb Sruly Bornstein, has a generator in his house, the meeting kept getting knocked off, and we had to keep restarting. It was frustrating, but what was unbelievable to me was that the oilam hung on, close to 200 people waiting patiently, logging on again and again. We’re stronger than a power outage, too.
Sruly Bornstein’s daf yomi shiur has thousands of daily listeners and viewers via the LDY (Lakewood Daf Yomi) app, website, AllDaf, Kol Berama Radio, social media, and streaming. The Zoom chevreh —between 200 and 300 people regularly, from a wide variety of backgrounds and geographic locations around the world — has formed a connection that was previously unimaginable. There is a special flow and real pilpul chaverim among us, from the participants in their teens to those who are quite elderly and everyone in between.
I never knew that Zoom can create a family feel, that faces on a screen can bond over real and vibrant learning, especially through the pregame and postgame show. Before each shiur, Aryeh Geldbard, a well-known Brooklyn videographer and one of the driving forces of the chaburah, chazers through ideas from recent blatt, asking questions and throwing out trivia, and people respond enthusiastically. After the shiur, we do a postgame of sorts — a quick review, with different people speaking up and sharing he’aros.
So many of us recognize the little children of other participants, kids who hop onto their father’s laps or walk by the camera to see the shiur that is revolutionizing the whole family. Some of the older children join for the reid, and at times for the pre- and post-game.
One night, early in COVID, shiur participant Rivie Schwebel inspired us through niggun — virtually. It was special, but the most touching moment for me was during our siyum on Maseches Shabbos a few months ago, when Sruly made a single, simple statement that resonated.
“Whatever else was going on during this confusing, frightening, crazy time, for a little more than an hour a day, we experienced the greatest tranquility and calm, day after day,” he said. “It was our rock.”
Chezky Eider is cofounder of Lakewood Daf Yomi (Daf by Sruly), the shiur delivered by Sruly Bornstein.
MOST INSPIRING CONTENT
Immediately after coronavirus hit, we started The Shabbat Show. Hosted by well-known speaker Charlie Harary, the goal of this hour-long weekly show is to bring the light of Shabbat to the masses by having people from all over come together virtually for a pre-Shabbos experience.
Our program airs on Thursday nights, and each week we cover intriguing topics, everything from resilience to racism and from dating to Down Syndrome. We’ve heard from personalities and speakers like Nissim Black, Beatie Deutsch, Rachelle Fraenkel, Rabbi Yossi Bensoussan, Judge Richard Bernstein, Ruchie Koval, Rabbi Jonathan Rietti, Rabbi Gav Friedman, Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith, and Malcolm Hoenlein, as well as many other “regular” people with great stories to share. There’s also a cooking segment with Jamie Geller and a JewQ Trivia game. The whole thing is produced by our director of programming, Yaakov Giniger, who spends hours putting it all together.
The Shabbat Show is relevant, it’s happening — and people are watching and learning. These days we’re averaging between 7,000 and 8,000 views per show, and we’ve even had shows with well over 10,000 views. Sixty percent of our participants are non-frum, and baruch Hashem, many have become more connected to Shabbos, with some taking on new commitments and others who are now fully observant. Women from all over have committed to lighting candles on time or to stop using their phones or social media on Shabbos. Two men from Arizona committed to stop driving on Shabbos.
Robin from Toronto told us that she and her husband Michael have a stronger relationship with each other and with Shabbos because of The Shabbat Show.
“He rushes home from work, and we sit in the living room together to watch and learn. Because of you, I have begun making challah each week,” she emailed us. “You have changed our home.”
The funny thing is, when we first put The Shabbat Show together, we didn’t know if people would be interested, but they were, because they see it as a way to connect to Shabbos from within their own homes. In the past, the excuse for not keeping Shabbos was, “My kids have soccer practice,” or “I have to go to this appointment,” but COVID removed a lot of that — and people are jumping at the opportunity The Shabbat Show presents.
Yossie Friedman is the executive director at Project Inspire.
Our yeshivah switched to Zoom classes after Pesach last year. The boys were interested and motivated, but they found the social dynamic — or lack thereof — challenging. Before COVID, the class was very close, especially because they’re bar mitzvah age. They had their dances choreographed and timed down to the second. Suddenly, this was all taken away, and they were limited to interacting on a screen.
I could see my talmidim were really suffering, so I advised them to share their thoughts on paper. One day, I received a letter in my mailbox, from a student to the rest of the class.
“I realized l’maiseh, I actually miss you guys,” he wrote. “Through ups and downs, highs and lows, we were always together, sitting behind the same desks, in the same classroom.
“But now we are living through the biggest hock of the year, but we’re not together to debate loudly, exchange conspiracy stories, and blame Trump for the whole thing. And it’s hard, not just lonely. Life without the class is just so bland. Like, very.”
I remember holding that letter, reading it, and sensing the need to create more ways for the boys to interact.
And Zoom did present an opportunity for interaction, creatively. When I finished Megilas Rus with the eighth graders and Pirkei Avos with the seventh graders, we held a Zoom siyum. There was the usual singing, and a special addition — instruments like drums, guitars, keyboards, even a shofar, whatever the boys had in their houses.
Another time, after a period of serious learning, I rewarded my class with a household scavenger hunt. When the screen flashed “Go!” they were off, racing to bring back a hanger, coffee, a one-inch Band-Aid, garlic powder, detergent — whatever I asked for — and yelling “I have it!” Boys are competitive, even on screen.
On the second-to-last day of the school year we were allowed to gather outside. The boys came to my front yard, and after we schmoozed a bit, they wanted to dance. And dance they did, socially distant, of course, filling my front yard with song, dance, and laughter.
“We may have learned on a screen this year,” I told them, “and even now, when we’re together, we’re six feet apart. But we stuck to it, we were consistent, and we shteiged, and that’s what matters.”
Rabbi Moshe Dov Heber is a middle school rebbi at Yeshiva K’tana of Waterbury in Connecticut.
IF I COULD ADD ONE FEATURE TO ZOOM IT WOULD BE
- the ability to send e-mails on the Zoom screen itself (Menachem Lubinsky)
- I have issues with only one person being able to share the screen at a time — right now the presenter needs to stop the screen-share before another person can share their screen. I’d love to allow multiple participants to screen-share simultaneously (Meny Hoffman)
- a note-taking feature where I can take time-stamped notes during the meeting — and after the meeting, emailed automatically along with the recording and the details of the people who attended (Nachum Kligman)
- a timer you could set for every meeting, along with a countdown. When time is up the meeting ends — and you can’t get back on (Shlome Steinmetz)
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 854)
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