This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it everyday.
On a recent Tuesday morning at their usual time, more than a dozen women in New Jersey hugged their rabbi – practically. Like many gods, the Highland Park Conservative Temple is closed.
For people celebrating beloved holidays this month, the coronavirus outbreak is forcing them to balance the religious imperative to come together with public health requirements to stay apart.
The big topic for the women’s meeting was how to handle Easter, which begins Wednesday night. Some of the women, most of them older, worried about the risk of shopping for food that meets Easter’s guidelines.
Rabbi Eliot Malomet was firm but compassionate about the need to avoid the typical Easter dinner, or Seder, filled with loved ones. Households only or vacation collections via webcams should do this year.
“We will sit at the Cedar and cry and get through this,” he said.
The Highland Park Temple has held online services, including a minyan twice daily, a gathering to recite prayers. Rabbi Malomet is planning a short greeting online before the traditional Easter dinner.
Rabbi Malomet had to overcome some early mistakes with virtual worship. The first day of the minyan over Zoom – or “zoominyan,” as he called it – participants created a racket until he thought he could turn off everyone’s microphones.
The rabbi also implemented a new label for virtual worship: For example, no breakfast during the service at 7 o’clock.
(More in The Times: How to introduce some new characters – even emoji – to your socially distanced Seder.)
Rabbi Malomet said the connection is practically a poor substitute for interaction between people, but he tries to use technology to keep an eye on people who need help with practical or emotional needs.
For many Jews, there is no doubt that Easter would take place, even in a changed form. There is a long history of Jewish religious traditions under difficult circumstances.
“We will have a good time,” said Rabbi Malomet. “It’s going to burn a bit, and for people who have endured a terrible loss, there will be a lot, but we will get through this.”
At the women’s meeting, normal interactions looked through the anxiety of coronavirus. It was congratulations to a woman whose grandson got engaged. The meeting was canceled when a participant put their video call background into a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge, and others tried to find out how to do it as well.
The women said they were happy to connect, even via webcams. “It’s great to see you all,” said one. “This will make my day.”
Software is not magic but …
Last week, I wrote about how technology is not a silver bullet for predicting illness. Of course, it can still be a useful tool.
One of the odd and disturbing symptoms of Covid-19 – a loss of sense of smell – can make it useful for detecting coronavirus bloating early.
The New York Times who contributed with opinion author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz recently mapped Google searches related to odor loss and found that they overlapped with the state’s coronavirus prevalence rate.
This symptom is unusual in our typical illnesses. That’s what makes our doctor Google searches about it a potentially useful predictor of coronavirus hotspots in some areas, said David Lazer, a recent social science calculator. 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 who found that Google search data could not detect the seasonal influenza outbreak exactly. Google’s predictions were very off base – including a conclusion that searches related to high school basketball were flu predictors. (Like the flu, basketball season happens in winter.)
A perennial challenge to researching diseases 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 that men tended to be better predictors of seasonal flu trends than women. Men were less likely to search for personal health information on Google regularly. When they typed into Google, they were more likely to do so while they were ill.