They are our teachers, our counselors, our spiritual leaders, our neighbors. Rabbis and cantors help us navigate the most important parts of our lives, from birth to Bnei Mitzvah, marriage (and divorce) to death and its aftermath. We rely on them, especially, in times of crisis like the coronavirus pandemic.
As the pandemic’s revolutionary impact on our day-to-day reality became clear this week, the Forward knew our readers needed to hear from clergy members. We asked about the adaptations they were making in their work, the sermons they were sharing with their flocks, the questions they were being asked — and the sources they were seeking for personal comfort. Here is a selection of responses, edited for clarity and length.
‘More people viewed it than would have attended in person’
We held a brief Shabbat gathering on Zoom… We were still getting used to the technology and I had to mute everyone so it was difficult to get a sense of who was there and how they were responding to what we were singing or saying. But there was a sweet intimacy about leading the service from my dining room table, and we had about the same numbers online as we do in person.
Rabbi Leah Berkowitz, Cong. Kol Ami, Elkins Park, Penn.
Synagogue was closed on Shabbat. I hosted a Facebook live service instead. More people viewed it than would have attended in person. The atmosphere was friendlier with people making comments.
Rabbi Michael Simon, Temple Beth Kodesh, Boynton Beach, Fla.
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We’ve been live-streaming services which has been an interesting experience. It is like learning a whole new way to be a rabbi. Frankly it’s been fascinating at this point of my career (20 years in) to have to find entirely new vehicles to connect to people, to engage with them, to excite them Jewishly, to comfort them, and to guide them. And to be doing it while under quarantine myself (I’m fine, secondary exposure) is an intriguing challenge.
Rabbi Debi Wechsler, Chizuk Amuno, Baltimore
We ensured that we had 10 people who were old enough to count in the minyan but young enough to not be considered risky. We practiced social distancing and we livestreamed.
Rabbi Rachel Ain, Sutton Place Synagogue, Manhattan
Even though we are a Reform congregation we lean very traditional (as do all the Canadian Reform shuls) so going technical for Shabbat was a philosophical challenge as we don’t normally use or allow screens. “No screen in shul” will become “shul in a screen.” We will do interactive Torah study next Saturday followed by Kaddish; the week after we will live-stream services. For the first time ever, I will have office hours—I’m calling them Shematime — twice a week at a specific time, I will be in a zoom chat room open to anyone to just come and talk or listen, process or rant. Our school is having two “zoomemblies” with the whole school. I am having to learn a whole new skill set and lingo!
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, City Shul, Toronto
I spent last Shabbat allowing colleagues around the globe to move me spiritually. The opportunity to engage across spaces and places with no restrictions, to feel part of community, was liberating. Every leader invited in their remote communities with great intentionality, evoking best practices for connected learning online. In each service I had the privilege (as a plugged-in Jew) to recognize other members of the remote kehillah, which heightened my sense of joining sacred and yet familiar space.
The different choices of platforms and of attention to sound, visuals and engagement were also a clear indicator of levels of comfort. Accessibility (closed captioning; PDF read-alongs) were among the deficits I have no doubt will be attended to in future services.
Across Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, I have been preaching how to best leverage your remote opportunities to create a connected community. One example regarding hosting Passover Seder: Don’t just cancel — go back to the WHY. Why are you hosting one in the first place? Do people otherwise not have Passover food/meals? Is there a way for caterers to cook in this crisis? If so, perhaps the shul is a middleman for collecting fees and distributing family-portioned meals to each household.
Can each family who is hosting a seder also “host” online someone / groups who are self-isolating but don’t want to be alone, so there are multiple sedarim streaming? Can you create a YouTube step by step Seder so people can stream you at the head of their tables?
Rabbi Karen G. Reiss Medwed, Northeastern University
We limited the bar mitzvah to siblings, parents, and grandparents, then shared the service online by setting up a smartphone on a tripod. We even had one of the aliyot join us remotely! The family had requested initially that we invite guests to come up and see the Torah scroll if they hadn’t before. So when that moment came, we picked up the phone and held it over the text.
What questions are congregants asking you about the pandemic?
I was asked if people who are viewing services from home should stand and sit along with the community during davening and should they wear their tallitot and kippot. I said definitely yes!
In terms of a life cycle event that must be done in person, what’s the right number of people to include? When speaking with a lay leader, it felt like a reversal of the conversation Abraham has with God about how many righteous people are needed to save Sodom and Gomorrah. We were saying, “if we can have 10, why not 15? If 15, why not 20?”
To rat or not to rat? Is it ethical to “rat out” to authorities someone who is showing symptoms?
Clearly it is worse than selfish for anyone who could be carrying the illness to attend any public gatherings. Clearly that person should consult with their physician.
Clearly, if someone who was at our synagogue over the past few weeks subsequently tested positive, it would be important for the others in attendance to find out (and if that requires a confidential chat with me to facilitate it happening, I invite that). Clearly, there is no shame in testing positive. The only shame is on those responsible for the catastrophic delays in testing altogether.
But if we get into the practice of “ratting out” those whom we suspect are ill, we will quickly fall into a deep trap, where well-intentioned responsibility leads to paranoia, rumor mongering, shaming and the kind of unbridled fear that could lead us in the direction of McCarthyism.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, Temple Beth El, Stamford, Conn.
What is the history of netilat yadayim (ritual hand washing)?
Rabbi Rebecca Spilke, Machane Chodosh, Queens, N.Y.
A congregant wrote to me earlier this week to share that she is devastated but will need to lay off all of her staff. She runs a small business. The economic impact of what is happening is going to be ruinous for people on many levels. I’m worried about the people who will lose jobs and the businesses that won’t survive and the people in our communities and their families who will be decimated.
_Rabbi Allison Berry, Temple Shalom, Newton, Mass.
‘This moment is a kind of dress rehearsal for Yom Kippur’
Here’s how I explained the name for our online space, Makom Iti: As a community, we know we are personally obligated for the collective good. In order to act for pikuach nefesh, saving a life, we are physically distancing ourselves from one another for the time being. But this is not social isolation. We refuse to let go of one another, particularly in times of stress and crisis when we need one another most.
Last week I spoke about how the sin of Amalek was shared by the Israelites — that they would create a society in which the most vulnerable were at the back of the pack, open for attack. This time, we know we are there together. Those of us who are more vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic and those of us who are not, we have a collective responsibility, all of us.
Rabbi Ariana Katz, the Baltimore Justice Shtiebl
This moment is a kind of dress rehearsal for Yom Kippur; a time when we are suddenly forced to contemplate our mortality, and, undistracted by the petty concerns of the day to day, can take time to really think about what – and who – are truly important to us.
Because on Yom Kippur we look at our lives, and ask: what truly matters to me? Who matters? If, God forbid, I were to die tomorrow, what would I like to know I’ve done in my life? What are things that I’ve put off, the things I always meant to do? What are the relationships that I have neglected, or ignored? What are the relationships that need mending? Who do I call if something happens to me? And what have I put off thinking there would be another day?
Rabbi Jordie Gerson, Greenwich Reform Synagogue
In thinking about the choices that the Israelites and Aaron made when they were afraid, I shared both my sympathies and my critique. I understood that sometimes we are fearful, but fear turns us to pay attention to the false idols of greediness (price gouging) and ignoring sound advice. Instead, I said, that in moments of anxiety we should listen to the true experts — the scientists and doctors. That we should understand that faith and community are important and the best way to walk this narrow bridge is to walk it a little bit a part, but with love and compassion.
It’s not a time for fear, it’s a time for courage and kindness. Hope and faith push away fear. By offering to help each other, through kindness and acts of connection, we can uncover hope.
Rabbi David Booth, Cong. Kol Emeth, Palo Alto, Calif.
There are moments when the wisdom of our tradition leaps out at us, and last week’s Torah portion is one of them. Parshat Ki Tisa is about Moses up on Mount Sinai and the people down below, who are terribly afraid of the social distance created between them. They become increasingly worried that he might never return or that they might lose connection. And they respond with fear.
It was a social distance that created an emotional toxicity and got out of control. Right now, there is fear of disease. For me as a rabbi, there is also fear of the harm that social distance might create. People love to be together….For the sake of public health, we are called to be alone more than we ever have. I fear that one type of disease might lead to another, as a day turns into many days
It is our job as a community now more than ever to be connected. Each and every one of us should call three people every day to say hello and ask after their well-being.
Rabbi Joshua Stanton, East End Temple, N.Y.
The Talmud in Bava Kamma says we can only enter a new city when it is light. We have to try as hard as we can to add more light to the world
Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz, Base Berlin, Germany
I’m writing from what I hope are the final days of what began as self-imposed quarantine and then moved to actual quarantine, having received a negative result on a COVID-19 test. I am waiting to get the O.K. to leave the house.
The midrash relates a story related to our ancestor, Abraham, as he was told to go out to an unfamiliar place. Rabbi Yitzchak said that Abraham’s experience may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place and saw a castle aglow.
He said, “Is it possible that this castle lacks a person to look after it?” The owner of the building looked at him and said to him, ‘I am the master of the castle.’” What happened with Abraham our father was similar. He said, “Is it possible that this universe lacks a person to look after it?,” the Holy Blessed One looked at him and said to him, ‘I am the Master of the Universe.’ (B’reishit Rabbah 39)
We, like Abraham, are setting out into uncharted land, and we may, like Abraham, also wonder, who is taking care of the castle. Perhaps we have Abraham’s faith and feel the presence of the Holy One of Blessing in our lives. But unlike Abraham, who ventured out alone from his father’s house, leaving behind everything he knew, each one of us has made an intentional choice to be part of our congregational community. We are in this together, and while we do not turn away from faith, we also do not turn away from one another.
Especially at this time of anxiety and isolation, and as we may feel lonely and uneasy on this yet to be traveled path, let us look for ways to turn toward one another. Let’s join and learn together online. Let’s offer to bring groceries or supplies to those who are shut in their homes (either self-isolating or quarantined). Let us find a sense of peace in knowing we are part of a loving and caring community.
Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro, University Synagogue, Los Angeles
Namaskar is a powerful yoga process. Bring both palms together at your heart center and bow when you greet someone.Yoga means union. Use Namaskar to look at someone with loving attention. You will begin to harmonize your body, the right brain with the left brain, Yon and Yang.
Namaskar yourself into peace, love and union. Namaskar unites the world.
Rabbi Samtosha (Samuel Steinberg), Om Shalom, Staten Island, N.Y.
I spoke about the parallels between our situation and the situation that the Israelites found themselves in when they thought Moses was not returning from Mount Sinai. What do we do in the face of uncertainty? Anxiety can breed fear. Fear breeds panic. Panic breeds poor decision making.
The Israelites made a Golden Calf, and then found themselves on the brink of destruction, and then divided against each other. We need to avoid panic and destructive thinking that accompanies it. The Purim story provides a wonderful contrast, a community facing danger and uncertainty that pulls together, with everyone playing a part, large or small, to help avert the crisis. This is the example we must follow: not to panic, to work together as a community and to support and help each other.
Rabbi Steve Conn, Plainview Jewish Center
Uncertainty and fear are swirling around us. And increasingly, within us. We are experiencing losses and new restrictions on a scale unprecedented in our lifetimes or globally. We cannot control COVID-19 and genuinely don’t know what future we are facing. What we can and must manage is our response; not the hoarding of canned goods but the energy, messages, and emotions that we cultivate personally and convey to those around us. Reading Parshat Ki Tissa anew in this difficult year, I feel challenged to expand my personal capacity to tolerate uncertainty, and to keep my internal reality—within my body and within my home—calm and faithful. And let’s all try to be forgiving of ourselves and others, when the mistakes inevitably happen.
Rabbi Michal Fox Smart, Ayeka North America
I shared a Talmud passage (Nedarim 80) which talks about two towns that need to share a spring of water. The first town must drink, bathe, water their cattle, and even do their laundry, before sharing with the next town. I spoke about how, even then, the rabbis knew how important it was to keep oneself clean and healthy as a matter of public health.
Staying home, however difficult, is a matter of Pikuach nefesh. I also shared that the passage reminds us that sometimes we have to make difficult decisions about sharing resources, but that we should work towards creating a world where everyone has what they need and is able to care for themselves and others.
What text — religious or not — brings you, the comforter, comfort in this crisis?
I’ve been meditating a lot, and singing Carlebach’s Nachamu, Nachamu Ami (comfort, oh comfort my people) to myself over and over.
The Israeli song, “Rikma Enoshit Echat,” “One Human Tapestry” (with the last word having the dual meaning of “tissue”). It’s a haunting, beautiful song, often sung at memorial ceremonies in Israel, focusing on how interdependent we all are. A “rikma,” an embroidery of cross-stitched sinew, maintains the uniqueness of each thread, each strand, while at the same time validating that we are inextricably intertwined, body and soul.
I also read the newspaper front pages of the world at the Newseum website. We are all in this together, completely interdependent. This is a holy communion of the entirety of humanity, utterly unprecedented.
Rabbi Rachel M. Isaacs, Waterville, Maine
Kol Yisrael areivim ze baze. We are all responsible for each other, and must look out for the health and needs of one another. Hopefully our elderly will reach out for support or even just call to be comforted.
Cantor Kenneth Feibush, Cedar Grove, N.J.
Several prayers for the siddur have taken on new relevance—i.e. Hashkevaynu and Mi Sheberach for Cholim. Re-reading Huckleberry Finn, long walks and treadmill, baking. Not having baseball or basketball, which are my usual stress relievers, has been an adjustment.
Reb Nahman of Bratzlav: The whole world is a narrow bridge but the main thing is not to fear.
I’m finding great comfort and company in podcasts. I was already listening to Tablet Magazine’s Take One podcast on the daily Talmud page every day, as well as a number of feminist/comedy/literary shows, and it’s a comfort that these continue to be a part of my daily rhythm.
“We can not control what happens to us, only how we react to it.”
Rabbi Ben Herman, Bet Shira Congregation, Miami
Virtual pastoring, and the texts that give them comfort: 19 rabbis (and 2 cantors) on spiritual leadership through coronavirus
Jodi Rudoren became Editor-in-Chief of The Forward, the nation’s oldest independent Jewish news organization, in September 2019 after more than two decades as a reporter and editor at The New York Times. She is helping lead a transformation of the storied 123-year-old institution, a nonprofit that went digital-only in early 2019.