Phoebe Light: Shabbat in the Time of Corona

My relationship with Jewish life had always been, up until a couple of years ago, off-and-on. Jewish summer camp a couple of times. A Birthright trip. A year playing guitar at Hillel in college. Even a three-year stint living in Israel, not that I ever really explored my Judaism there; if anything, I felt disconnected from itlike an imposter. But my relationship with Judaism stabilized a couple of years ago when my husband Seva and I joined CBB.  

I was going through a hard time and found solace at CBB. I loved Shabbat services, took classes, got involved in groups, made friends. It didn’t matter that I had grown up secular and didn’t know a lot of the prayers. It didn’t matter that my Bat Mitzvah involved me and handful of other previously un-B’nei Mitzva’d Birthright participants reading transliterated Hebrew – badly – off a piece of paper in the conference room of the Rimonim Hotel in Jerusalem. CBB met me where I was, and gave me every opportunity to partake in Jewish life and fill in the gaps (ok, more like giant voids) in my Jewish education. I loved it and decided that this was it: I was going to dive into Judaism punimfirst, no more ghosting, no more playing it hot-and-cold.  

And then: Covid. For the first few months, my solution was to just…wait it outAfter all, how do you “do Judaism” without the Jewish community? So, I figured, no biggie, I’d just press pause in March, and rejoin the community whenever there was a community to rejoin. Surely, we had to be back at the temple by June or July, right? Shabbat in the outdoor sanctuary had become my favorite anyway, so I’d just bide my time through spring, and then be back to shmearing oneg bagels on the front patio come summerAnd anyway, was resistant to the idea of Zoom Shabbat; it sounded too disorienting, too strange. There’s no hugging like five different people on your way into the sanctuary over Zoom. There’s no touching someone who’s touching someone who’s touching the challah. Plus, you can’t smell the CBB smell over Zoom.  

What’s the CBB smell, you might ask? Oh, you know what it is. You’ve smelled it. It’s that smell of a Jewish building that has been used over the years. Well-walked carpets, maybe with some kiddush wine spilled on them here and there. Challah and egg salad. Worn prayer books with the smudges of a thousand thumbs on their pages. Pre-schoolers’ art supplies. Perfume (that always brings back memories of my own Jewish grandmothers). I love the CBB smell, and you just. Can’t. Smell. It. Over. Zoom.  

So I waited.  

And waited. 

And…well, we all know how Covid went this year. We didn’t sit in the outdoor sanctuary. No loud-engined plane flew a Chumash Casino banner overhead during the AmidahNo Israeli teenagers were flown to Santa Barbara to regale us with tales of the Leo Beck School in Haifa. Oneg bagels went unshmeared 

So finally, I decided it was time to put on my big girl pants and rejoin CBB online. Smell or no smell.  

First, Seva and I watched the Rosh HaShanah livestream. I baked challah (the smell!) and made us an elaborate holiday dinner and sang along with the prayers and cried when the camera showed the empty chairs in the sanctuary.  

Then, Yom Kippur. We fasted and watched the livestream on the couch, both of us wrapped in my Zayde’s tallit. I cried againI don’t even remember why, other than the fact that it was Yom Kippur during 2020. Yom Kippur during a year that itself felt like one long, uneasy fast. And yet, there were Rabbi Steve and Cantor Mark, right in our living room, and it was just so good to see them!   

And then, finally, we joined a Zoom Shabbat. And to my surprise, almost everyone was there. The community had been there all along. People read passages from the prayer books and sang along with the prayers and unmuted themselves to wish their loved ones refuah shlemah during the Misheberach. I felt silly and a little embarrassed that it had taken us so long to join in.  

Rabbi Daniel recently returned from paternity leave to give a sermon, in which he said that even if it means breaking commandments, we Jews prioritize life above all else. That by keeping the temple’s doors closed, we are acting according to that sacred principle. And he reminded us that we Jews have a long history of adapting to extreme adversity. We’ve been exiled from nations and forced into secrecy; we’ve been scattered across the globe and yet we’ve always found a way to keep our traditions alive. Zoom Shabbat is just one more example of that. And we’re leaning into it now. Better late than never.  

So, our new pandemic tradition is this: on Fridays, I make challah dough on my lunch break (a little perk of working from home). After work, I bake the challah and our apartment gets its own special Shabbat smell. Then, it’s time for Zoom Shabbat with CBB. Together, my husband and I sing and pray along in our apartment, often joined by our cat. And once that’s done, we get out our special family heirloom Shabbat candlesticks, Facetime our friends up in Seattle, and light the candles together with them. Then we hang out and drink some kiddush wine. And finally, in the spirit of carving out sacred time to rest and reflect, we order late night Thai Food on Doordash 

When CBB reopens, we’ll be there. But in the meantime, we’ll be there, too.  


Phoebe Light has been a member of CBB since 2018. She lives in Goleta with her husband Seva and their cat.