A month into the isolation forced by the coronavirus outbreak, Jewish religious life is taking on the quality of a Buddhist koan brimming with paradox: Rabbis and congregants all over are feeling — sometimes strongly, sometimes weakly — a presence in the absence.
“We have worked hard to live out the motto ‘Physically apart but spiritually connected,’” Rabbi Rachel Ain of Sutton Place Synagogue told The Jewish Week.
“Over the past four weeks we have embarked on a marathon of connections. Through phone calls, social media posts, emails and more, we have done our best to reach out to our entire community,” she said. “When I called one of our senior citizens to check in, he said he was so sad that he wouldn’t be able to do Passover this year since … even when he was running from Hitler he could do Passover. I explained what we were doing for a Zoom seder and his daughter, via FaceTime, helped him attend and have Passover. I am grateful for the technology that afforded him that access.”
Whether or not the current situation will change the nature of synagogue worship or alter the deep sense of community that sustains the Jewish community, Rabbi Ain’s experience is being duplicated by hundreds of her peers. And the demand on rabbis is, perhaps paradoxically, given the forced isolation, very much heightened.
“I am busier than I have ever been,” said Rabbi Deborah Bravo, founder and spiritual leader of Makom NY, based in Woodbury, L.I., who planned to lead a Yizkor memorial service on Thursday, the last day of Passover. This after she was forced by social distancing to perform a Zoom funeral service for a relative of a congregant, offering comfort from afar for some 150 friends and family members around the country who viewed the funeral service on their computer screens.
“I’m working harder with a synagogue that is closed than I did when it was open,” said Rabbi Elie Weinstock of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side.
His recent schedule has included daily online prayer services, phone calls to isolated congregants, Torah classes on Zoom and a weekday lunchtime study session. And his workload increased in the days before Passover, he said; with more congregants staying home to make the seders by themselves than in usual years, the rabbi, and his colleagues on KJ’s rabbinical staff were flooded with questions about the laws of the holiday. “I probably had a thousand questions.”
The Conservative Synagogue in Westport, Conn., is typical of congregations under lockdown in that it has become a virtual synagogue.
“In addition to weekday minyanim, Kabbalat Shabbat (prior to candle lighting) and Havdalah, we have offered a variety of educational programs taught online by our clergy and skilled lay-leaders. We had a variety of pre-Passover seminars as well as a community Zoom Seder,” said its rabbi, Jeremy Wiederhorn, who is also the new president of the New York Board of Rabbis. Social distancing, he reports, has transformed his community.
The synagogue’s schedule includes trivia games, cooking classes and a comedy night. In addition to preschool and religious school distance-learning programs, both the rabbi and the synagogue’s cantor offered a live bedtime story and lullaby for preschool families and an “Ask the Rabbi” Zoom session for religious school families.
“We are also offering a ‘walk with the rabbi’ Zoom class, to encourage folks to get some fresh air in their own neighborhood, while maintaining distance and talking to others so they are not walking ‘alone,’” Rabbi Wiederhorn said.
Similarly, Rabbi Janise Poticha of Temple Sinai of Massapequa hosts a weekly “Monday Morning Minute” on Zoom that gives congregants a chance “to catch up and reconnect from the weekend.”
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, calls the current situation of forced isolation “the new is.”
“Rabbis are being extremely creative in trying to keep the community connected — virtually,” he said. Rabbis have had to adjust to people’s online attention span — somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes, he estimates. “The rabbis make an effort to present as much material as possible” in a limited time.
Many rabbis report that men and women who do not belong to their congregations have been taking part in virtual shul activities in growing numbers. “Outsiders become insiders,” Rabbi Potasnik said.
Often, however, virtual activities can’t replace the human touch. That’s especially true when it comes to pastoral care to seniors, said Rabbi Tamar Crystal, interim spiritual leader of Bay Ridge Jewish Center in Brooklyn and the Board of Rabbis’ senior chaplain.
Senior facilities in the New York area have been particularly hard-hit by the virus, with one in three nursing homes in the state reporting cases and about 15 percent of all New York coronavirus deaths connected to nursing homes at the beginning of April, according to the New York State Department of Health. Nearly all homes and assisted-living facilities have limited contact between residents, and even prevented family members from visiting.
“In normal times I visit 31 facilities for seniors a month, most for The New York Board of Rabbis: nursing homes, rehabs, assisted living, psychiatric and memory care units,” Rabbi Crystal told The Jewish Week. “Usually I do groups — with materials I create to stimulate the residents, to challenge the passivity that is the norm living in even the best facilities. Equally important is the need to let the seniors know that the Jewish community has not forgotten them. For 90 percent-plus of those I visit in a month, I am not only the sole rabbi they will see, but often the sole Jew they will have visit.”
The rabbi has responded with a daily “inspirational mailing” that the facilities can download for discussion as the staff goes room to room, and counseling residents and staff members by phone, Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, Instagram and email.
For Passover she put together an abbreviated Haggadah and seder that staff members could show to residents on a laptop or iPad.
One common problem: the elderly are not always computer-literate.
“It is especially difficult for those who don’t have access to technology (or who aren’t as comfortable with technology) but we are trying to deploy members of our synagogue who are more comfortable with technology and help those (over the phone) who are less comfortable,” Rabbi Ain of Sutton Place Synagogue said in an email.
For those with access to technology, it is far easier to connect than it was in the pre-digital era.
“It’s easier than it would have been 25 years ago,” said Rabbi Hershel Billet of Young Israel of Woodmere. Isolated people — particularly seniors — are less isolated now because of ubiquitous online social media options. “Imagine being at home and having only a telephone.”
In addition to a wide variety of online activities, Rabbi Billet’s congregation, led by its five-member rabbinical staff, has instituted non-virtual projects that include shopping for the homebound and delivering meals from local kosher restaurants.
Melanie Weingarten, a speech pathologist who lives in Plainview, is one of the members of the Makom NY community with whom Rabbi Bravo keeps in regular contact: Daily story time on Zoom with the Weingartens’ 6-year-old daughter; Hebrew school with her 10-year-old brother; a weekly parents’ support group that includes a social worker; and a “daily correspondence,” usually texts, from the rabbi, asking how the family is faring.
“The connection” with the Makom NY community “has even increased” in the last several weeks, Weingarten said. “Part of being home is that people feel isolated. Just having someone who’s looking out for you … helps me feel more connected. It’s nice for the kids to have that connection.”