JLD@Home: 3 Lessons I've Learned from Virtual Shabbat with Jewish Life at Duke


3 Lessons I've Learned from Virtual Shabbat with Jewish Life at Duke

Joyce Gordon, Director, Jewish Life at Duke

While Duke students were on spring break in March, they were notified that on-campus classes would be suspended, and later, that the remainder of the semester would be completed remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many others across the country, students unexpectedly returned to their hometowns, off-campus apartments, and other locations to finish their semester from their computer screens, a concept they jokingly referred to as “Zoom University.”
At Jewish Life at Duke, we stepped into high gear. Our motto of serving as the home away from home for our students took on new meaning as we reimagined all of our programs, classes, and rituals – from Passover Seders to one-on-one coffee conversations to Senior Seminar – to take place virtually.
One of those many programs was our weekly Shabbat experience. Shabbat became virtual as we got into the habit of logging on to Zoom at 5pm each Friday, seeing the faces of our Duke Jewish community in Brady Bunch-style boxes.

It’s been eight weeks of virtual Shabbat so far, and I’ve learned some important lessons from this experience:

1) Ritual is more necessary than ever

Community rituals are powerful and soul-nourishing; their absence has made many of us feel a sense of loss during this time.
In the face of so much uncertainty, logging on to our virtual Shabbat each Friday has become a meaningful weekly ritual for our students and for me. In a time when all the days seem to run together, singing along to the familiar tunes that we sing at the Freeman Center and seeing students bring their families, guitars, and pets to our Shabbat Zoom has become the expected marker of the end of each work week.

Shabbat itself is a grounding pause in our week: a tradition that has sustained the Jewish people for centuries. Our weekly virtual Shabbat is likewise a grounding touchpoint for a Duke Jewish community in diaspora. We’ve heard from many students just how important this Friday ritual is for them while they’re sheltering at home, which is why we’re continuing to do this over the summer.


2) Bubbes are #DukeFamily!

One of my favorite aspects of Shabbat at the Freeman Center is how frequently families visit. Almost every week at Duke, we welcome a visiting sibling, grandparent, parent, or relative.
Virtual Shabbat has allowed us to welcome families much more regularly.
Parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, siblings, and grandparents join us from their corners of the country to bring in Shabbat with us.

What a joy it has been to hear our students greet their families as they pop onto the screen (“Hi, Nana!”) or to see a younger sibling singing along or to notice that a relative has now become a Shabbat regular. What a testament to this community we’ve built.
If you’ve ever joined us for Shabbat, you know that we end each week, whether at the Freeman Center or virtually, by having each person share their one “Good Thing of the Week.” These days, many grandparents – Bubbes in particular – have been sharing that their “good thing” is their health, their family’s health and wellbeing, a lovely phone call with a relative, a letter they’ve received, this Shabbat experience. These Bubbes are teaching us all to be grateful for one another, and what they share often brings students to tears. This sense of connectedness and family is essential.


3) Students are still building community – even at home.

Writing “Duke students are leaders” is like writing “the sky is blue.” It’s not surprising news. What is surprising is the degree to which our Jewish students are still using the leadership skills they’ve developed on campus in order to strengthen our Jewish community while at home.
During our virtual Shabbat, students step up to lead songs and prayers, they keep us on track, they remind their now virtual community to join them in this weekly ritual that differentiates the seemingly endless days from one another.
When I think about the future of our global Jewish community, I know that it will be changed as a result of COVID-19. When I see our students sharing kudos for one another, bringing more students to our virtual Shabbat, and including their families, I am reassured that our collective Jewish future will be bright. These students are the future leaders of our Jewish institutions – organizations that exist today, and organizations yet to be dreamt up.


As I’ve reflected on these three lessons I’ve learned from our virtual Shabbat – the necessity of ritual, the connectedness of family (birth and chosen), and the resilience of our community during this strange time – I have thought about how grateful I am to be in a Jewish community where we all get to teach one another.

Yes, Jewish Life at Duke has a talented professional team who put their hearts into facilitating our Jewish community, but it is the students who often teach us the most. 

They continue to show us the way forward toward a brighter future – and the way to make the most of right now. 

Joyce Gordon is the Director for Jewish Life at Duke (JLD). Prior to joining JLD in July 2018, Joyce served for eight years as the Executive Director of Judea Reform Congregation, a 600+ family Reform synagogue in Durham, and also held roles at Meals on Wheels Durham, Spoonflower, and Duke University Medical Center and Alumni Affairs. She loves connecting with students at this formative time in their lives and serving as a resource for them on their personal Jewish journeys. 

Joyce received her Master’s in Public Administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her Bachelor of Arts in English from Rice University. She lives in Durham with her husband and her two children, and enjoys reading, quilting, and board games with family and friends.


See what it's all about:

You're invited to join Jewish Life at Duke for Shabbat every Friday at 5:00 pm EDT via Zoom. Learn more and find the link here.

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