A change of focus at New City Jewish Center
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A change of focus at New City Jewish Center

‘We’re becoming a community again’

Fortunately, said Jessica Trokel, executive director of the New City Jewish Center, the synagogue has been able to maintain contact with its members during the covid crisis. But the nature of that contact has changed — and not just because formerly live events have become virtual, but because the shul itself has become the main initiator of that contact.

“The focus has changed,” Ms. Trokel said. “Rather than congregants calling us with issues and questions, we took the entire congregational list and divided it among lay leaders and staff so we could reach out to all congregants. We have a large senior population, so there are also grocery runs.”

Before this, she said, “There was not much cross-generation activity. We’re becoming a community again. This has changed the landscape.

“Business as usual is not at all usual. We have been forced to pivot from our normal activities and instead focus on the emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being of our congregation in a whole new way. The ner tamid” — the eternal light — “is still burning in our physical building, but we are now tasked with keeping that flame alive without that physical space. Some days are incredibly difficult.”

Jessica Trokel stands between her husband, David, left, and the shul’s facilities manager, Robert Gutierrez, at the most recent Presidents Journal Ball.

Ms. Trokel, who has worked for the Conservative congregation for nine years, some of them as the shul’s bookkeeper, said, “We’ve always said that the synagogue is more than a ritual space. [Today’s shul-goers] look at synagogue life differently than their parents’ generation.” Now, she said, “we have kind of reestablished our focus. It’s now about community.”

The synagogue closed its doors on March 13. “It was a really sad day for us. We’re one of the oldest synagogues in the county. We’re here for 60 years.” Services now are held via Zoom, with daily minyans as well as Kabbalat Shabbat and havdalah services led by lay leaders. On Pesach, the shul’s two rabbis, David Berkman and Daniel Graber, invited congregants to join their seders via Zoom; there was one seder each night.

Still, Ms. Trokel said, the changeover to electronic outreach has been relatively smooth. “We’re fortunate to have a great group of educators that we work with. Our Hebrew school was up and running instantaneously. Rabbi Graber taught people how to use Zoom. He also worked with the teachers in the Hebrew school and nursery school. They were all in a panic about how to teach a young child online. We had to find new creative ways to teach the kids and maintain their connection. I’m extremely proud of the teachers, especially considering their initial reluctance.

“They’ve adapted wonderfully. On the education front, there’s not a lot we can’t do.”

One of the things they can’t do, however, “struck us the hardest. We usually have a bar or bat mitzvah every weekend from March through June.” With this now being impossible, Mr. Trokel felt the young people were “bearing the brunt of this. So on the day of the simcha, we send them a Carvel cake.” Students will not be required to learn new parshiyot for their postponed bnai mitzvah, and the synagogue is considering holding parallel services in the future, with one devoted exclusively to the thwarted youngsters.

Another “can’t do” is helping families mourn when they lose someone, “and that’s been a lot lately,” she said. “We offer to set up virtual shivas for our members, but a lot of them are not up to it. There’s also the shock of how funerals are being conducted. Sometimes, you can’t bury your loved one immediately” — the funeral home may not be available — and the number of people at graveside is severely limited.

Ms. Trokel said that at the very beginning of the move into crisis mode, congregants were focused on content. “This congregation is doing so and so. Why aren’t we doing that?” is a phrase she would hear frequently. “But we went from 0 to 100 in a nanosecond,” she said. “There was a lot of adapting, and now I get wonderful emails. They’re very appreciative of our efforts.”

What does she miss? “The inconsequential things like saying ‘hi’ to people. You get to know people, and they become part of your day. Seniors are wonderful volunteers.” But, she added, “they’re more vulnerable, and their families may not be close by.”

The crisis is “enhancing our neshama,” their soul, she said. “We’re reaching out to congregants and encouraging them to reach out to each other. In one newsletter, we asked if anyone could donate blood. A 94-year-old called to ask me if he was too old to donate. He was a liberator during the war and he’s still out there. It’s the strength of humanity.”

Ms. Trokel, who lives in New City with her husband, David, has two grown children, Jack and Emma. She has been working from home for a month.

Asked if the synagogue has a plan to return to normalcy, she said, “We have to define normal. I don’t want to go back. I appreciate what we have learned about each other and we have to find creative ways to celebrate that.” But some plans are starting to take hold. “We’re going to have a huge party for all the b’nai mitzvah kids, who can read their haftarahs there. We’ll take that approach. Acknowledge families who couldn’t grieve. Put emotional healing before business as usual.”

Is she busy? “I just bought a new desk chair,” she said. “I thought that if you’re working 10 to 12 hours a day, you need a better chair. My husband has started walking in the morning and he drags me out of the house.” In other words, she’s as busy now as she was before.

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