Bruce Bierman (seated) with husband Gilberto Melendez prepares to lead a virtual dance (Photo/Vaschelle André)
Bruce Bierman (seated) with husband Gilberto Melendez prepares to lead a virtual dance (Photo/Vaschelle André)

As long as it’s fun, virtually anything goes in online gatherings

If you’re stuck at home but yearning for Jewish community, there are plenty of ways to connect: virtual Torah classes, sing-alongs, book groups. But what if you’re looking for something different?

From knitting circles to folk dancing to cheesemaking, synagogues and Jewish organizations are coming up with innovative ways to help people get through the days and keep in touch online.

“We just all need a break,” said Rebecca Calahan Klein, a member of the women’s group at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. “We all need some time to have a little fun and remember to laugh again.”

There was plenty of laughter at the May 27 cheesemaking event that Calahan Klein set up on Zoom for the Women of TBA. She organized the somewhat complex event as a way for people to relax and take a break from the stresses of everyday life.

“It was really fun, and you could see it on people’s faces,” she said.

The original plan had been to make mozzarella, but it turned out it wasn’t easy to find vegetarian and kosher-certified rennet, an enzyme liquid that separates milk into curds. That meant mozzarella was off the table — literally. There needed to be a change of plans, Calahan Klein said.

“Oh, got to pivot to ricotta!” she said with a laugh.

In preparation for the session, which was led by Berkeley cheesemaker Nicole Easterday, Calahan Klein prepared 40 sets of the ingredients needed to make ricotta and handed them out in the parking lot of the Conservative temple, maintaining social distance.

Angela Engel of Temple Beth Abraham tries her hand at ricotta. (Photo/Courtesy Engel)
Angela Engel of Temple Beth Abraham tries her hand at ricotta. (Photo/Courtesy Engel)

“At 7:30 we all dialed in [to Zoom] and for an hour we made cheese,” she said. “And it was hysterical.”

With questions flying left and right, and camaraderie igniting all around, the event proved to be the perfect distraction from pandemic life, Calahan Klein said.

“We were all like, aah, how do we deal with this!” she said.

Another way people have been filling time is through exercise and movement. Bruce Bierman estimates he’s taught about 30 online Jewish dance classes since shelter in place began on March 17. He said a recent Hasidic dance workshop he led, which was presented by KlezCalifornia, drew about 130 people to Zoom.

It took the longtime dance teacher and Berkeley resident a while to get used to the online experience, but he now feels like he’s able to connect with his students.

“Zoom has actually surprised me,” he said. “I wanted to throw it out the window the first couple of weeks.”

While Jewish dance usually takes place in a hall of some sort, Bierman said it’s possible to make it work, “surprisingly, really well” through the medium of the computer screen. “Of course we don’t dance any more in circles, or in partners,” he added.

Instead, he focuses on the complicated hand gestures found in Yemeni and Hasidic dance, perfect for the computer where whole-body movements would be hard to follow. “Jewish dance is really in the upper body, more than steps,” he said.

An online event that’s more sedentary but just as enjoyable is knitting. Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek has been using its virtual knitting circles to share information about stitches as much as to socialize.

Organizer Margalit Ir and a number of women from the synagogue have been knitting together online once a week ever since shelter in place went into effect. “I just wanted to connect with people,” Ir said. “I was a little lonely staying at home.”

The knitters — people “on the older side of the age equation,” she said with a laugh — meet for an hour on Zoom, with knitting needles in hand and ready to chat.

“We talk about different types of yarn, or sometimes a different stitch,” Ir said.

Julie Solomon of the B’nai Shalom knitting circle with her current project. (Photo/Courtesy Solomon)
Julie Solomon of the B’nai Shalom knitting circle with her current project. (Photo/Courtesy Solomon)

The discussion does stray into other subjects, including politics, but at the end of the day, it’s about spending time with people who share a hobby.

So far, it’s been B’nai Shalom members only, but Ir said anyone is welcome to join the sessions at 11 a.m. on Thursdays (for details, email dstephens@bshalom.org).

“It’s really a number of women with — literally! —a common thread,” she said. “Of yarn.”

Of course, cheesemaking, knitting and dance are just a few of the options. Jews are getting creative throughout Northern California. Temple Sinai in Oakland is offering guitar lessons. And Congregation Beth Israel in Carmel held a virtual discussion of the Netflix show “Unorthodox.”

And then there’s rainbow challah. In honor of Pride Month, Keshet, a Jewish LGBTQ advocacy organization with an S.F. office, organized an online class for families with young children on how to make the bursting-with-color braided bread, led by a baker who calls herself “The Challah Guru.” The class is on June 11.

As different as these events are, they’re all ways to lift the spirits during dark times. Or, as one participant put it at the end of a KlezCalifornia dance class, “A hartsikn dank [heartfelt thanks]. This was a joyous antidote to the sorrow of this week.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.