The Day – Lights, cameras, congregations! Tech-savvy religious leaders maintain hybrid services

Waterford – Rabbi Marc Ekstrand knows when to stare at one of the cameras on the ceiling, when to take a quick look at a monitor on the left side of the room and when to make eye contact with people sitting in the chairs in the sanctuary facing him. .

Two mounted pan-tilt-zoom cameras can rotate 360 ​​degrees. One offers the traditional view of the back of the room facing the bima, or focal point, of the room. The other camera best captures cantorial soloist Sherry Barnes as she leads songs with her guitar and all the musicians playing to her left.

Even though COVID-19 mask mandates have been lifted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Temple Emanu-El has returned to in-person church services in the past two weeks, Ekstrand and Barnes are confident that the continued supply of hybrid services is the right decision for the congregation.

“Zoom was like the savior of our connection as a religious community,” Ekstrand said. “Usually sacred space was physically defined. People at home have the ability to transform their location into a sacred space. I wanted to have a connection with the people there.”

Other congregations, including All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New London and Niantic Community Church, also have home and in-person attendees.

Barnes was pleased with Temple Emanu-El’s ability to accommodate worshipers who needed to join prayer gatherings from home.

“It opened my eyes, to see how important it was for people who were active at one point and couldn’t be here anymore,” Barnes said, citing those who could no longer drive at night. or were housebound for health reasons. the reasons. “It was like a big door for people we hadn’t seen in a long time. They showed up on Zoom.”

A former engineer, Ekstrand felt the need for sustainable hybrid services several months ago. He approached stalwart and fellow engineer Sean Bendick with the challenge: How could the temple resume in-person services while continuing to welcome people who might not normally be able to attend?

Bendick said Rabbi Ekstrand “wanted to interact with congregants logging in from their homes as if they were in the building.” Worshipers from home are highlighted on Zoom and their audio is streamed to those who attend the temple in person as they lead prayers from home. They also have the ability to submit names for healing and bereavement prayers via Zoom’s chat feature.

As the volunteer president of Temple Emanu-El’s Audio Visual or A/V Club, Bendick tours with his volunteer crew of Temple members for live production coverage every Friday night. Ava Burdo and Ryan O’Bern, video production students at Ella T. Grasso Southeastern Technical High School in Groton, gained experience as part of the temple’s AV team.

“We’re learning which part of the service to present,” Bendick said. “One camera is live. One camera is on standby. People connect with the focal point of the service.” During the service, one person adjusts all camera angles and switches between the perspective of the two cameras while the other person manages the electronic prayer book.

Bendick had researched and networked with colleagues whose faith communities also had livestream capabilities. He observed services at a relative’s synagogue in New Jersey and consulted with Scott Gail, a colleague and work friend at Electric Boat – and fellow engineer – who had set up the A/V system at Central Baptist Church. at Westerly.

Last year, Bendick spent his spring break week drilling holes in the walls and ceilings of Temple Emanu-El so he could thread two 50-foot power cables and 75-foot audio cables from the table. of harmony at the front of the sanctuary at the back of the room. . He acquired the A/V gear on a budget of $1,500 which offered two pan-tilt-zoom cameras, an ATEM livestream switcher board and cables. A monitor that projects Zoom participants for religious leaders and worshipers and a joystick that allows close-ups, the ability to pan wide or follow subjects moving around the room, were donated.

Ekstrand and Barnes record a video greeting every Friday afternoon and release the YouTube video via an email explosion. This complements their efforts to engage followers through technology. They record themselves – without a script – modify the file minimally, then share it.

“If both groups can feel they are connected, then we have successfully broken down the barriers,” Ekstrand said. “We’re not done yet. We still have a ways to go.”

‘That’s life now’

At the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New London, clergy and congregants experienced a smooth transition from in-person to live streaming services at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, as they were already using electronic versions of their liturgy. and their songs.

“This is life now for the church. We said, ‘There’s no turning back,'” Rev. Carolyn Patierno said. team in 2020.”

To increase interactivity between home attendees and worshipers in person, Patierno asks everyone in the sanctuary to turn to the camera and greet everyone at home. She also invites home members to type their “joys and sorrows” in YouTube’s live chat from their “online pews”.

“We made the decision early on to stream on YouTube rather than invite devotees to join us on a Zoom call,” said technical director Jesse Edwards. “It made it easy to access; you don’t need to download an app.” He also said he may make edits to the recording before airing it to ensure a “highly polished experience” for viewers.

Niantic Community Church also offers hybrid services.

People appreciate the option

What do devotees think of continued access to a hybrid option?

“Moving from the area was a huge change for me,” said Ken Abrahms, a Temple Emanu-El member of 20 years who moved to Bedford, New Hampshire, six years ago, but keeps in touch through services. Zoom. “To always be directly connected to my religion and my community is just wonderful to me.”

Kate Treadwell-Hill, a loyal All Souls supporter for more than 20 years, enjoys attending services from her home. “I’ve been reluctant because of COVID. My stepson has asthma,” she said. “I was not thrilled to return to in-person services.” She said she expected “every news item isn’t about COVID.”

On the other hand, there are families who prefer to attend in person but appreciate being able to tune in from home when their schedules get busy.

“I like in-person (services). It’s better to be there than to be on the couch,” said Autumn Hicks, 10, a member of Temple Emanu-El. Her mother, Elyse, agrees that participating in services in the building helps Autumn’s 7-year-old sister, Morgan, stay more engaged.

“We had so much to do once that it was easier to connect from home since we could,” Elyse Hicks said. “I think it’s good that they give people a choice.”

Editor’s note: This version corrects the spelling of Rabbi Marc Ekstrand’s first name in the photo captions.

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