Coffee with the Rabbi: An Exploration of Jewish Spirituality & Virtual Community | Emma Friese

With challenge after challenge, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was exponentially more devastating because we could not physically gather together. We could only access emotional support, assurance, and distractions through a screen. The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered human interaction by necessitating interactions with those we hold dearest in a medium that is, at best, impersonal.

Such challenges are especially pressing for senior citizens, who face increased physical risks from contracting COVID-19. Virtual communities present a logical and safe option for seniors to socialize and care for their mental health, but senior citizens typically face challenges adapting to virtual communities due to generational differences in understanding technology. I wondered how impactful a virtual community could really be in overcoming the challenges of COVID-19, and could a pre-existing group survive a virtual transition? Would interactions among the group become more, or less, meaningful? 

To begin my investigation into the effects of virtual communities on senior citizens, I turned to two true social butterflies, my lovely grandparents.1 For the past 15 years, they have attended “Coffee with the Rabbi” sessions at their synagogue, Temple Emanu-el2, in San Diego. The synagogue designed “Coffee” as an outreach program for their senior congregants. In the words of their Rabbi, Devorah Marcus, “when people become retirees, their opinions may stop mattering, but Coffee with the Rabbi is a safe space where their opinions can matter.” Every two weeks, 10 to 15 seniors gathered for an hour to schmooze, learn, and talk politics through a Jewish lens. At the start COVID-19 pandemic, Rabbi Devorah knew the group had to adapt. Sessions moved to Zoom, and they began meeting weekly. Discussed topics remained similar with the virtual transition, but demographics changed as new members joined. Attendance rose to about 25 people per session and could include a couple of participants from outside San Diego. 

The group also began to take on a new role for participants, one of emotional support. The Rabbi used the weekly meetings to keep an eye on her members, and friends in the group checked in on each other. Over the past year, this was the only regular social appointment for many members. For my ethnographic investigation, I wanted to understand the changes the group experienced by becoming virtual and the overall impact of the group on its members during the pandemic. Was it an effective virtual community? What about this moderately sized group of Jewish seniors from the San Diego area could apply to the rest of us? 

I joined the Coffee with the Rabbi Group for a learning session once a month in February, March, and April 2021. During each session, I noted the demographics of participants, as attendance was variable. My “environmental” observations were unconventional, of course, but I wanted to document how members presented themselves and used the virtual platform. Before attending my first session, I interviewed my grandparents to gain some context. We spent the better part of an hour chatting about how the group met before the pandemic and how the group set up has changed since. Then in March, I interviewed the group moderator Rabbi Devorah. We discussed her leadership methods and intentions for the community, both in this group and the whole Temple. Finally, I created an electronic survey to efficiently gather accurate demographic, personal, and anecdotal information from the participants.3  It also allowed respondents to remain anonymous, as some desired.

After sending my electronic survey to members of Coffee with the Rabbi, both the number of responses and their deep sincerity overwhelmed me.4 The data demonstrated the demographics of the group as quite homogenous. All respondents identified as Reform Jews (as opposed to conservative, orthodox, etc.), and the overwhelming majority were of Ashkenazi descent. Notable distinctions included two members who identified as both Conservative and Reform, one was adopted into a Jewish family, and another was a convert. Respondents ranged from ages 54 to 82, with a median age of 73. Most respondents have attended sessions for over five years, and another third have attended for over a decade.5 

During my first session, I was stunned by the members’ competence in the platform and their incredible online “etiquette.” Almost everyone had their cameras turned on and sat at a formal desk space. Only a few people multitasked with secondary tasks such as eating or knitting. Members made ample use of the chat feature to ask questions, elaborate on ideas, and even send links to outside media. Most professors could only dream of such behavior from their virtual students. I will note, however, many people preferred to physically raise their hands rather than using the “Raise Hand” feature. Overall, the virtual format presented little to no disruptions to the flow of meetings.

The controversial discussion topics and overall candor also caught me off guard. We discussed topics ranging from mask mandates to Israeli elections to white privilege. Although most of the group harbored liberal opinions across issues (another surprise for a group of white 70-year-olds), there was still much debate, but it always remained civil. Discourse is a part of Jewish culture. The tradition goes back to our name, the Israelites, as the Hebrew translation of Israel means “to struggle with G-d.” The saying goes, there are four Jews in a room, with five opinions…

Each session was unique, but we always began with opening remarks from the Rabbi, who asked how everyone was doing. Questions of where and how to get the COVID-19 vaccination always dominated early conversations. The Rabbi would then introduce a general topic for the session and let the members run with it. She never prepared a formal lesson plan, but the session was always informative and productive. When the Rabbi stepped out for 20 minutes during one session, the meeting continued successfully without her. Discourse remained lively, only getting slightly out of hand without her supervision.

My interview with Rabbi Devorah was fantastic. After we both ran 15 minutes late to our meeting (Jewish Standard Time6 is real!), I began to learn about her Jewish background. Rabbi Devorah was born and raised as a Reform Jew7. She has been a Rabbi for 12 and a half years, and she is in her 8th year at Temple Emanu-el. When I pushed her on the purpose of Coffee with the Rabbi, she insisted there was no purpose. The group was defined by its total lack of agenda. It is simply about getting together and, as she put it, “having a loving embrace of a space to talk about angst, politics, and frustration with the world.” She divulged that, before the past year, she did not particularly look forward to the Coffee with the Rabbi meetings, but now it is one of the highlights of her week. 

Before the pandemic, Rabbi Devorah was a self-proclaimed technophobe. Now, she is mad at herself for not embracing Zoom sooner. She noted proudly that participation in Coffee with the Rabbi is much higher now because barriers common to seniors, such as driving, have been removed. She is even considering keeping the sessions virtual. Rabbi Devorah based her decision to transition all Temple programs (social gatherings, services, education, etc. ) to virtual platforms on the most sacred value in Judaism: protecting the sanctity of life. The Rabbi faced a moral question: How do we maintain our community without putting anyone in harm’s way? When the virtual transition began, the temple administration made sure none of their congregants were left behind. Rabbi Devorah organized phone calls to every congregant, ensuring they were healthy and safe, asking if they needed groceries, etc. The Temple sent teams to install internet in members’ houses and provided iPads to those without computers. It is no wonder Temple Emanu-el has experienced a much lower drop-off in member participation than any other congregation in the area during the pandemic. Although Rabbi Devorah is much too humble to say so, the success of Temple Emanu-el’s virtual community can be attributed to her acute attentiveness and genuine care.

After sending my electronic survey to members of Coffee with the Rabbi, both the number of responses and their deep sincerity overwhelmed me.8 The data demonstrated the demographics of the group as quite homogenous. All respondents identified as Reform Jews (as opposed to conservative, orthodox, etc.), and the overwhelming majority were of Ashkenazi descent. Notable distinctions included two members who identified as both Conservative and Reform, one was adopted into a Jewish family, and another was a convert. Respondents ranged from ages 54 to 82, with a median age of 73. Most respondents have attended sessions for over five years, and another third have attended for over a decade.9 

As the Rabbi expressed, my data demonstrated a slight uptick in overall attendance after the virtual transition, even though meetings were twice as often. When the group met in person once every two weeks (before March 2020), about half of the respondents went to every session, a third went to almost every session, one went a couple of times a year, and one never went. Now, all respondents attend every week or almost every week. Based on survey responses, attendance increased because Coffee with the Rabbi was an outlet for dealing with social isolation. When asked if they viewed the group as primarily spiritual, social, or educational, all but two said it was primarily social or all three.10 When asked to elaborate, members shared heartwarming sentiments. They described the group as a “group of familiar folks from such varied backgrounds” that “feels like family.” Many expressed how learning with the group was enhanced by “Jewish kinship because of shared Jewish topics and beliefs.” Many members also took this prompt as an opportunity to express love for their Rabbi, thank her for creating the open, discussion-based environment. 

Although nearly all respondents agreed that the dynamics of the group changed after going virtual, the vast majority said it was insignificant. Meeting on Zoom did not make sessions less engaging or overly tedious. This is an impressive feat among any group, but especially senior citizens. Zoom served as an effective medium. The emotional needs of the members and the intensity of world events trumped virtual barriers to emotional intimacy. The individuals who said group dynamics changed significantly described the group becoming more emotionally intimate as more people began sharing personal experiences. Sessions became more focused on checking-in and supporting one another, rather than political or social discourse.

In regard to changes in their overall religious participation, members were more varied. Of the 15 participants, six said they were more active in the Jewish community than before. Seven remained the same as before, and only two reported less. These responses again reinforce the dramatic and positive effects of the Temple’s effort to maintain their community and attend to the increased emotional needs of members. Those with increased participation cited the ease of attending services virtually and the plethora of new activities Temple Emanu-el provided, including online lectures, classes, and book clubs. 

Finally, I wanted to test whether members have felt a more spiritual connection to Judaism in the past year. While times of struggle have historically led to increased spirituality across religious backgrounds, electronic models of religious practice are quite unprecedented. Nearly half of respondents reported feeling more spiritual in the past year than before the pandemic. None reported feeling less spiritual. Self-described reasons for increased spirituality varied. One member cited the loss of her husband at the start of the pandemic. Another remarked that her faith increases with age. Evidently, the pandemic allowed members to take time to explore their Judaism. As one member responded, “[I] can’t explain it, [I] just do.”

The positive impact Coffee with the Rabbi sessions had on group members did not surprise me, but the experience still shattered many of my preconceptions. The dynamics of their group changed but in a positive way. Their sessions became more meaningful. The responses to my question, “What are some of the biggest challenges you have dealt with in the past year?” stunned me most profoundly. Members dealt with the harsh consequences of COVID. Some, as I mentioned before, lost their life-long partners or became severely ill, experiencing pain I can only imagine, but they also missed traveling and going to the theater. They could not wait to go back to the salon and get lunch with their friends. These responses stunned me because, well, they were so similar to how I would have responded. It seems to be human, is to miss the mundane. Few questions would yield similar responses from a group of college students and retirees. Then again, we are in the midst of the only experience I can think of that a 20-year-old and a 75-year-old could have for the first time together. I found a strange sort of solace in that. None of us, young or old, have the answers for how to coherently navigate this pandemic.  

In the end, I was surprised by the deep emotional connection I developed to the group over such a short time, even though my study was purely empirical. Based on what I witnessed in the sessions, it is no wonder almost all respondents said Coffee with the Rabbi Session has been “Very Helpful” or “Helpful” in overcoming challenges of social isolation, or that one member said their meetings “felt like group support session.”

 Our shared Jewish kinship helped us form an initial connection, but we also bonded on a fundamentally human level, sharing profound insecurities and fears—even through a screen.

The night after Thanksgiving, six months after conducting my online ethnography, I am sitting at my dining room table eating leftover pie with my grandparents. Since most of my family was still in town, we added an unconventional twist to the tradition of going around the table and saying something you are grateful for. Instead, we each shared something for which we felt ungrateful, followed by with a silver lining or greater perspective (very quirky, we know). My grandmother shared that she was ungrateful for COVID in general, but she acknowledged that there are not too many experiences that a 20-year-old and a 75-year-old could have for the first time together. I smiled, flattered by her sweet, albeit plagiarized, response. 

After dinner, I followed up with my grandparents to ask about the coffee group as well as Temple Emmanuel as a whole. As we have all learned from COVID, a lot can change in six months. When my grandpa told me, “honestly, much hasn’t changed,” I was thrilled, but my relief was short-lived when he quickly followed up with “Well, until about three weeks ago.” At the start of November, Rabbi Devorah began a 3-month sabbatical. She was supposed to take a 6-month Sabbatical starting the Summer of 2020, but like many things that Summer, it was delayed.

They tried to conduct the group, which still met online weekly, on their own for two weeks, but, as my Grandma described,  it “devolved into three people having a conversation amongst themselves.” I guess you cannot exactly take the Rabbi out of Coffee with the Rabbi. Temple Emanu-el does have an assistant Rabbi (who my grandparents were very proud to announce as a married homosexual), but he does not enjoy leading the group very much.

Moderation from Rabbi Devorah is essential to successful group discourse, and many members look to ask the Rabbi questions specifically. Rabbi Devorah’s casualness, use of profanity, and overall open-mindedness make any setting she leads welcoming. My grandmother emphasized how this level of intimacy between congregants and their Rabbi is uncommon. My grandparents were members of their former congregation in Philadelphia for than 20 years, but they “felt much more a part of a synagogue going to this class [Coffee with the Rabbi] than any other time.” Although the group misses their meetings, everyone agreed it would be better to start again in February when Rabbi Devorah returns from Sabbatical.

Continuing the group spirit while keeping their social calendars filled, nine members have formed a separate Havurah— an informal Jewish fellowship that meets for discussion or prayer. They get together for an outdoor lunch once a month, which feels safe for the all-vaccinated group. Temple Emanu-el has also begun transitioning away from a 100% virtual platform, conducting outdoor services following mask mandates. However, Rabbi Devorah is still quite concerned for the congregation’s safety, especially with the new Omicron variant, so it is still “going to be a while,” before the Temple transitions back to in-person.

For now, I am glad my grandparents have their Havurah, and, as I recently learned, the group was happy to have me. In proper grandparent fashion, my grandma and grandpa printed out the final version of the ethnography I sent them, highlighted their favorite sections, and read them at one of their monthly meetings. Most people did not know I was their granddaughter (which I will take as a win for my professionalism), but they all loved having me there. Anthropology is a weird field because you actively impact the people you try to observe objectively. As anthropologists, we understand we leave the environments we enter different from how we found them. I am glad I had a positive impact on this one.


  1. When I drew final conclusions from my overall investigation, I took care to weigh my grandparents’ input equally with to the opinions of others in the group
  2. “Emanu-el” is the englecized version of the Hebrew “עִמָּנוּאֵל” meaning “God is with us.”
  3. I used Google Forms for the Survey with 25 questions. Of the approximately 25 members who had access to the survey, I received 15 responses.
  4. I believe the high response rate mitigates any penitential voluntary response bias from the survey.
  5. All respondents were current members of Temple Emanu-el, and all but one live in the San Diego area.
  6. An inside joke among Jews, “Jewish Standard Time” often means assuming anything you plan will start 15-20 minutes late. We are a busy people.
  7. Reform Jews view the Torah from a historical, rather than fundamentalist, perspective, practicing a form of Judaism adapted to contemporary life. (An important note: differing forms of Jewish worship, including Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative, are not analogous to different sects/denominations of Christianity.)
  8. I believe the high response rate mitigates any penitential voluntary response bias from the survey.
  9. All respondents were current members of Temple Emanu-el, and all but one live in the San Diego area.
  10. Two members said it was educational, and none said spiritual.

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