Connecting in a pandemic
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Connecting in a pandemic

Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel of South Orange adjusts to these very odd times

Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel’s preschool sponsored a pandemic drive-in movie night; here, the synagogue’s Cantor Rebecca Moses’s children, Alexandra and Levi, munch popcorn in their “cars.” (TSTI)
Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel’s preschool sponsored a pandemic drive-in movie night; here, the synagogue’s Cantor Rebecca Moses’s children, Alexandra and Levi, munch popcorn in their “cars.” (TSTI)

“Only connect.”

The trouble with quotes that are so true, and so adaptable, as to be nearly irresistible, is that they edge into cliché. They become hard to use, because a writer can nearly hear the eye-rolls, even from her pandemic isolation.

But phrases become clichés because of their truth. There often is no more elegant way to say it than the way it’s become enshrined. E. M. Forster was right. (And yes, of course there’s far more to “Howards End” than that, and the quote goes on longer, but that’s not the point, at least not here.)

There is a pandemic going on. There is a vaccine on its way to us — it’s already begun to be injected into the people who need it most — but there is a dark, dangerous winter to get through first.

People turn to their synagogues for help. As Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange knows, their connection to their shul community can help ground them, and maybe even keep them sane.

But how does a synagogue foster that connection?

Through creativity, Rabbi Cohen said. By brainstorming — that is, by gathering the staff together, ideally in a room, but during pandemic times online — and working off each others’ wild ideas, letting them get wilder and wilder, without judgment or shaming. And then by considering if any of those ideas could work, and then working on them until they do.

The week before Thanksgiving, Rabbi Cohen realized that the upcoming holiday “would be a really stressful day. What could we do to make it better?” There was no big thing he could do, but “we welcomed everyone to a Zoom l’chaim on noon on Thanksgiving.

“We thought it would last about five minutes for about five people, but 45 minutes later, we said goodbye to the last of 50 people. We realized how strongly people feel the need for connection, especially on Thanksgiving, and then on Chanukah.

“So we started thinking about what can we do that’s out of the box for Chanukah? So we started throwing out dumb ideas.”

They came up with quite a few ideas — none of them dumb — that resulted in a source book that’s posted on the shul’s website, tsti.org. It’s a compilation of resources, recipes, movies, books, games, projects, and ideas for each of Chanukah’s eight nights; it’s both socially conscious and attractively designed, and it also includes links to live performances.

“Cantor Moses” — that’s Rebecca Moses — “took the lead on what was a team effort,” Rabbi Cohen said. “She took it and ran with it.

“She said that we did a handout like that for the High Holy Days, and we started throwing out ideas. We wanted things that are fun, distracting, and give parents something to do with their kids. We also wanted things that are value-driven. We wanted something consistent with who we hope we are, and that is consistent with our values. That’s why we have a mitzvah component every night.”

It was so important to Cantor Moses that the resource be available to everyone that “she even took it to Staples and printed it out,” so that any community member not comfortable online could take this inherently online resource and use it easily, Rabbi Cohen said.

Rabbi Daniel Cohen urged his congregants to vote; here he does it himself, in South Orange. (TSTI)

The last night of Chanukah was to be called Car-nukah. (The snowstorm seems to have put paid to the plan.) After singing and simply being together at a distance in the parking lot, participants were to set the giant chanukiah there aglow by beaming all their car headlights on it.

“We do anything we can to connect, to make people feel a little less blue,” Rabbi Cohen said. “It’s being open to the possibilities. Creativity is unlocked when you open yourself to it.”

Like all other synagogues, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel had to figure out how to handle lifecycle events. Because it’s Reform, and so does not consider itself to be bound by halacha, it’s free to use technology on Shabbat and holidays — but the freedom to use technology does not come accompanied by an instructional manual. This is new to everyone.

How should a bar or bat mitzvah work? Or a shiva?

“We still are doing them on Zoom, but now we start with service with pictures of the young person at different ages,” Rabbi Cohen said. “We start a shiva with pictures of the person we are honoring. The visual imagery closes some of the gap” between being together in person and isolated in a Zoom window.

“How do you give up on the assumptions of the past?” he continued. “You ask yourself what is the goal, what do we want to achieve, and how can we do it in a way that is consistent with our values.”

It’s working.

“I hear from families, after the fact, ‘Wow! I didn’t think that this would be satisfying at all. But not only was it satisfying, but there were people there who otherwise couldn’t have been there.” In fact, Rabbi Cohen said, he and TSTI’s staff are keeping a list of “things we might want to keep, postpandemic. It’s a list of the things that are net positive, in the midst of a net negative.

“I think that we have to keep some things on Zoom or some other technology to keep people connected in a hybrid way once we are back. For example, an adult-ed class that would have been snowed out can be online instead. We don’t have to cancel anything if the weather is bad. We’ll just Zoom. Had we tried that a couple of years ago it wouldn’t have worked — but now we can.

“Two families that had b’nai mitzvah over the last two months said that they weren’t happy about the idea of it in the beginning, but now they wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Jodi Katz and her family found meaning and joy in August’s at-home bar mitzvah. (Jodi Katz)

“Who’d have thunk it?”

In general, he said, “the philosophy is that right now, I don’t care what we did last year. What are values within the confines of what we can do right now? What can we do to achieve them? And how can we do it it in a way that becomes memorable?”

Jodi and David Katz of Maplewood celebrated their son, August, becoming bar mitzvah last Shabbat in a way that they couldn’t have imagined a year ago, but it was memorable in a way that it might not have been had it been more standard.

“I know that people have been postponing bar mitzvahs,” Ms. Katz said. “They’ve been super frustrated, or maybe even angry.” She understands those feelings. Still, “there was not a moment when we thought he would postpone the bar mitzvah. It was going to be 12/12/20, and it was going to be during Chanukah. We knew that we would move forward with that.

“I realized that during this time, which it is so challenging to navigate, when our normal circumstances and ways of finding joy really are on pause, why would I want to postpone this joy? Why wouldn’t I want this joy in my life right now?

“There is so much joy in it! So much joy in this family adventure, in producing this in our living room.”

Because both she and her husband own design agencies, they were at an advantage when it came to setting up August’s bar mitzvah, Ms. Katz said. “We know who to turn to, who the vendors are, who to call. Our daughter, Willow, who is 10, designed the art for a backdrop on a app she uses for making art. The rabbi loaned us his lectern, and we got professional lighting from my office. I have a podcast series, so I have microphones.”

Most people don’t have that background, but they don’t need it. Whatever skills or passions they do have will be what they need. “The point is that the adventure is meaningful, whether or not you are people who are tuned into audiovisual needs for events. It is no less meaningful than being in the temple on a Saturday.”

The fact that her son grew in learning and in maturity as he approached his bar mitzvah had great meaning, Ms. Katz said. “August grew little by little, day by day, week by week, month by month, as he approached the time when he’d go in front of everyone he knew to sing in another language.

“It’s a meaningful Jewish ritual, and the courage and the focus and the emotional growth — if we postponed it, we would be postponing his growth.”

Even though the idea of Zoom b’nai mitzvah is new, parents already are learning from each other. When the synagogue’s clergy held Zoom meetings for families preparing for bar or bat mitzvahs in the next few months, they also invited parents whose children had just become bar or bat mitzvah. It was the first cohort to take on this brave new world instructing the second group. “This is where you get the pay-it-forward benefits,” Ms. Katz said.

Her family did not give up on everything a conventional bar mitzvah service would offer, she said. Her son’s grandparents and great-grandmother all had aliyot, but over Zoom. In place of the big party afterward — which will come after covid, but there’s no date yet — the Katzes had a waffle and hot chocolate truck park in their driveway. They invited small groups of family and friends, at different times, for socially distant chocolate desserts. For what TSTI calls its trumah project, August is collecting and donating coats; his dvar Torah made the connection between donating coats and the story of Joseph’s coat of many colors, which he read at his bar mitzvah. “He redefined the story so it’s not about jealousy,” Ms. Katz said. “It’s about gratitude.”

Given everything they have learned from August’s celebration, how will they be able to apply those lessons to Willow’s? In three years, presumably the pandemic will be over and everyone will have returned to shul.

“That’s a good question,” Ms. Katz said. “I don’t know. What was so important about August’s bar mitzvah is that the focus was 100 percent on August. It was not about the weather or the flowers or the luncheon. It was 100 percent about watching him grow as a human being. Of course he also wants a big party — but this was about not rushing off for the party. It’ll be hard to recreate that.” But she’ll try.

“As a family, every little moment is joyful to us, and we do believe that every day is a gift,” she said. August’s bar mitzvah “wasn’t less than. It was equal to, or even greater than.”

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