A Zoom-fatigue-proof Friday Night

By Jill Raney, OneTable host & founder of Practice Makes Progress.

We’ve got a lot of scary things to be stressed about these days. And the beauty of Shabbat is that we actually need this built-in rest and nurture ourselves and each other, so that we have the capacity to spend the rest of the week addressing things like police violence, political unrest, economic collapse, and climate change. By comparison, Zoom fatigue is absolutely a privileged problem to have. 

But I live alone. There are things I can do to rest and nurture myself on Friday nights I spend by myself, but spending every Shabbat alone after spending the rest of the week alone for months on end is a lot more than an annoyance. Human beings need relationships. We can go a minute or two without air, a few days without water, or a few weeks without food before our bodies start to shut down. How many months can we go without hugs? That’s a real question I talk to my therapist about. Fighting the pandemic requires social distancing, so now I have to do a bunch more work to fight the very real impacts of social isolation.

One of the things I love about Shabbat dinners is all those little side conversations that happen when a group of people are together in person. One-on-one and small-group conversations? Not the same on Zoom.

In the “before times” I usually organized my Shabbat dinners around food themes. Destroy the Pastriarchy Shabbat (a million different pastries), Pumpkin Spice Shabbat (basically everything that tastes good with cinnamon and nutmeg), Southern Shabbat (pulled pork barbecue, vegan sloppy joes, and my grandmother’s potato salad) — I really went to town on some food themes. But shared food? Not the same on Zoom.

Even the most basic element of any social interaction, communication itself, is not the same on Zoom. It’s exhausting to try to distill social cues from small windows that might be pixelated or laggy and can’t capture most of your companions’ body language let alone all the smells and tastes and sounds of Shabbat. Warm, nurturing gatherings on Zoom require structure. And the bigger the group, and the less well the participants know each other, the more structure you need.

Screenshot of Zoom video call with one chat message on the right and six participants, only two looking at the camera and smiling with the rest of the people out of frame

I had a good long cry back in April when I finally had to admit to myself that I wouldn’t be able to host seder in person this year, but I picked myself back up and organized Zoom seder, and it was beautiful. I sent around a spreadsheet and invited people to sign up to lead a section of the haggadah, and several Jews and non-Jews took me up on that with enthusiasm. We were having such a good time that I finally had to call it a night after four hours hanging out with each other through those little rectangles. Months later, people were still telling me what a good time they had at Zoom seder.

My first Zoom Shabbat after that was, well, super awkward. I learned the hard way that what made my pandemic seder successful is really different from all those food themes from my Shabbat dinners of yesteryear. The haggadah gives lots of structure to our conversations around the seder table, lots of short segments with an activity or a discussion question or a dramatic reading. That night is different from all other nights, but I started thinking about other ways I could give myself and my guests some structure for a restful and fun Shabbat.

Enter: Collaborative Harry Potter Trivia Shabbat. A rousing success! It took some advance preparation — I went full nerd and built a slide deck — but it turns out that putting in more work beforehand meant I could chill out at my virtual Shabbat table. My guests that night all loved Harry Potter but some of them had never met each other before, and IT WAS NOT AWKWARD. “Who is your favorite trans Harry Potter character and why?” really got the ball rolling!

Blue background with white text reading "Dunking on JK Rowling" and directions below in white text

My advice for hosting at its most basic is to match your guests and your theme. Either start by thinking about who you want to gather and then pick a theme they’ll all have fun talking about, or start with a theme you’re excited about and then gather a crew who will be excited about it with you. Some helpful tips from there:

  • Plan a mix of longer and shorter, faster and slower segments of the night. Long and involved discussion questions can be rich and interesting but they make the conversation feel slower, so have some faster-paced activity ready to pepper in when things feel like they’re lagging. There were some individual trivia questions that we spent 10+ minutes talking about, it was amazing, and to keep things moving we also did a rapid-fire series of Identify Which Movie This Is Based on Daniel Radcliffe’s Hair.
  • Be clear with people in advance about what they can expect. No one thing is going to fit everyone’s needs, and that’s ok — give people the information they need to make decisions that work for them. Some people love competitive trivia! Some people might enjoy or at least tolerate it sometimes but maybe it kinda makes them feel stupid and that’s the very last thing they need at the end of another long and isolating week. I decided to do collaborative trivia where we didn’t keep score, and I said so when I invited people so they could decide if that’s the kind of night they wanted to have.
  • A lot of people feel super awkward introducing themselves on camera, so offer for people to just type an introduction in the chat instead. It can be as simple as name and pronouns and how you know the host, or what everyone’s eating for dinner, or even skip introductions entirely since everyone’s names are under their video boxes anyway and get right into the conversation.
  • Get yourself comfortable. You’ll want to feel good wherever you’re sitting (or standing! my coffee maker is the right height for a makeshift standing desk!) and once the camera’s on you’ll probably feel a lot more at ease if everything you need is within arm’s reach.
  • If you find yourself stressing about how you look on camera, there are two equally valid routes you can take. One, test out different lighting and webcam angle options until you find the setup you feel best in, or two, put a sticky note over the part of your screen where Zoom shows your face so you just don’t have to see it.
  • Plan a bathroom break. Announce in advance that you’ll be taking a 5- or 10-minute break where everyone can turn off their cameras and mics, go to the bathroom, grab a blanket, refill their glasses, take a stretch break, and get settled in for more of that sweet sweet Zoom Shabbat. Everyone taking a break at the same time feels a lot more restful and it ends up reenergizing the conversation when you get back.
  • Remind yourself to breathe, drink some water, and enjoy yourself. I learned a lot of these tips from my professional and organizing work, but hosting Shabbat shouldn’t feel like work. The effort you put into designing your theme is meant to give you support so that once you light those candles you can let your hair down and enjoy this time with old and new friends.

Enjoying someone else’s Zoom Shabbat?

  • Be on time and fully present.
  • Consider how to make the time work best for you so you have a chance to refresh. Or if you can, bring your device outside or a different room to physically change your space from how you might Zoom for work.
  • Have your drink of choice and bread at the ready. If you’re still cooking or preparing for dinner you can mute yourself and use the chat to still be present if it’s a small group. Turn your video off to not distract when you’re distracted.

Eventually science will get us through this crisis, and we’ll once again enjoy hugs and dance floors and bustling dinner parties. But we need each other all the time — the social connections of Shabbat dinner can’t wait for a vaccine. When we find that some of the ways we’re trying to connect are more awkward than nourishing, we can try different things until we find what works. I hope my experience helps you find ways to Friday that work for you.

Inspired? Click here to create a dinner or apply to become a host.

OneTable empowers people who don’t yet have a consistent Shabbat dinner practice to build one that feels authentic, sustainable, and valuable. The OneTable community is funded to support people (21-39ish), not in undergraduate studies, and without an existing weekly Shabbat practice, looking to find and share this powerful experience.

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