The crush is in full swing in Northern California, which in the age of COVID-19 means one thing for the congregants of Congregation Beth Israel: time to leave the parking lot. For months beginning last spring, about 20 men and women from the region’s largest Orthodox synagogue would arrive at the large parking lot of Covenant kosher winery in Berkeley, California’s business district.
Wearing masks, standing over six feet apart, the men faced a wall of empty grape bins and prayed. The few women in attendance stood further distanced by a tattered three-foot-high wood and paper screen.
Now, while the grapes are being crushed into juice, trucks and winemaking equipment consumes most of the space in the winery’s parking lot. That has forced Beth Israel’s popup shul to move directly across the street to the Jewish organization Urban Adamah, a two-acre city-based farm that practices sustainable agriculture.
In a few weeks, they will return to Covenant, courtesy of the winery’s owners, Jodie and Jeff Morgan, who are also synagogue members.
“At our last prayer gathering at the lot, I was struck by the equipment and containers that were set up outside the winery, in our ‘prayer space,’” said Congregation Beth Israel’s rabbi, Yonatan Cohen. “I couldn’t help but feel that our prayers over these past few months created a spiritual container of sorts at the winery as well, and that this year’s vintage will include another layer of taste and meaning: the prayers and longing for spiritual connection and God’s sheltering presence of a community praying outdoors during this pandemic.”
Like so many small business owners, Covenant is enduring the exigencies that the virus has wrought. The Morgan’s winery – which in a normal year produces about 10,000 cases of high-end kosher wine from their urban Berkeley winery and from their facility in Israel’s Golan Heights– has lost, according to Jeff Morgan, about 80% of its revenue in Israel and approximately half from its California winery.
Which makes the congregants of Beth Israel – the largest orthodox synagogue in Northern California — even more grateful to have a place to gather for their daily worship “At this time,” said Cohen, “it’s a lifeline.”
During pre-harvest services at Covenant, many of the congregants read the scriptures from their cell phones; while a shamus, or ritual director, stood off to the side making sure that the flock adhered to COVID-19 rules. There was a constant din from the traffic of nearby Highway 80 and a frequent freight or an Amtrak commuter train rumbling by 50 or so yards from the services. No one seemed to pay any mind.
Still, the outdoor, wandering shul is a far cry from normal, said Morgan, both as a Jew and a winemaker.
“Judaism is a very social and tactile culture in addition to being a religion,” he said. “We are proscribed from congregation on Shabbat as we’ve always done. We are proscribed from celebrating important Jewish holidays.” Smaller gatherings means less wine sales for Morgan and other kosher winemakers. Morgan said a family that usually ordered 10 cases of wine for the week of Passover ordered 10 bottles. Ernie Weir, another California kosher vintner, said his business is also suffering. His Napa Valley winery, Hagafen, which has been making wine for 40 years, produces about 8,000 cases a year. It will make about half that during the COVID-19 crush. “COVID- 19 has had a serious effect on all wineries in Napa Valley, ours included,” Weir wrote in an e-mail. “Visitation is down significantly, and on many days it feels like we are living in a perpetual January. “
Covenant’s Morgan put a positive spin on the current pressures.
“I believe that 3,500 years of tradition will fall back in place once we find a vaccine for Covid,” he said. “If anyone thinks a viral blip such as Covid can knock us down, they are not true students of history. Jewish life is not going away. But it is challenged this time.”