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On a recent Tuesday morning at their usual time, more than a dozen women in New Jersey huddled with their rabbi — virtually. Like so many houses of worship, Highland Park Conservative Temple is closed.
For people celebrating cherished holidays this month, the coronavirus outbreak is forcing them to balance the religious imperative to come together with the public health imperative to stay apart.
Like others, the Highland Park congregation of nearly 400 families is leaning on technology to recreate the disrupted rituals of life as best they can.
The big topic of the women’s meeting was how to manage Passover, which begins Wednesday evening. Some of the women, most of them older, worried about the risk of shopping for food that meets Passover guidelines.
Rabbi Eliot Malomet was firm but compassionate about the necessity to avoid the typical Passover dinner, or Seder, packed with loved ones. Household-only or holiday gatherings through webcams would have to do this year.
“We’re going to sit at the Seder and cry and get through this,” he said.
The Highland Park temple has been holding online services, including a twice daily minyan, a gathering to recite prayers. Rabbi Malomet is planning a brief online greeting before the traditional Passover dinner.
Rabbi Malomet had to overcome a few early missteps with virtual worship. The first day of minyan over Zoom — or “zoominyan,” as he called it — attendees created a racket, until he figured out he could mute everyone’s microphones.
The rabbi also implemented new etiquette for virtual worship: No making breakfast during the 7 a.m. service, for example.
(More in The Times: How to introduce some new characters — even emoji — to your socially distanced Seder.)
Rabbi Malomet said connecting virtually is a poor substitute for in-person interaction, but he is trying to use technology to keep an eye on people who need help with practical or emotional needs.
For many Jews, there’s no question that Passover would take place, even in altered form. There’s a long history of Jewish religious traditions practiced under dire circumstances.
“We will be fine,” Rabbi Malomet said. “It will sting a little, and for people who have endured terrible loss it will be a lot, but we will get through this.”
At the women’s meeting, normal interactions peeked through the coronavirus anxieties. There were congratulations for a woman whose grandson got engaged. The meeting was derailed when one participant set her video-call background to an image of the Golden Gate Bridge, and others tried to figure out how to do it, too.
The women said they were glad to connect, even over webcams. “It’s lovely to see you all,” one said. “This will make my day.”
Software isn’t magic but…
Last week I wrote about how technology is not a silver bullet to predict disease. It can, of course, still be a useful tool.
One of the odd and unsettling symptoms of Covid-19 — a loss of one’s sense of smell — might make it useful for spotting coronavirus flare-ups early.
The New York Times contributing Opinion writer Seth Stephens-Davidowitz recently mapped Google searches related to loss of smell, and found they overlapped with coronavirus prevalence rates by state.
This symptom is unusual in our typical illnesses. That makes our Doctor Google searches about it a possibly useful predictor of coronavirus hot spots in certain areas, David Lazer, a computational social scientist, told me recently. More research is needed to understand the link between search behavior and health status, he said.
I wrote about 2014 research by Dr. Lazer and others that found Google search data failed to accurately spot seasonal flu outbreaks. The Google predictions were wildly off base — including a conclusion that searches related to high school basketball were flu predictors. (Like the flu, basketball season happens in winter.)
One perennial challenge of researching illness through our internet searches is that habits change as we learn about symptoms and search for them more regularly. There are also demographic differences in search behavior.
In his seasonal flu research, for example, Dr. Lazer said that men tended to be better predictors of seasonal flu trends than women. Men were less likely to search for personal health information in Google on a regular basis. When they were typing symptoms into Google, it was more likely that they were doing so while sick.