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How did your shul manage this year?

Orthodox Union’s synagogue network brings executive directors together to talk about adapting to the pandemic

Elissa Yurowitz, left, and Ruth Hartstein
Elissa Yurowitz, left, and Ruth Hartstein

As communal institutions continue coping with the pandemic and planning for the day after, executive directors from 55 North American synagogues discussed challenges and shared ideas at a virtual conference convened by the Orthodox Union. The OU’s synagogue network encompasses 400 congregations in North America.

Six New Jersey synagogues were represented: the Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph; Kehilat Kesher in Englewood/Tenafly; and Teaneck congregations Bnai Yeshurun, Keter Torah, Rinat Yisrael, and Young Israel of Teaneck.

Elissa Yurowitz, Rinat Yisrael’s executive director, said that the conference was an opportunity to discuss programming that has worked and that hasn’t worked during this unprecedented period, and simply “to inspire and be inspired.

“It’s always interesting to get perspectives from shuls in different parts of the country,” she said.

“Some are not open at all, and some are sort of full steam ahead. Our shul was closed from the beginning of the pandemic until around June; since then we’ve had daily minyanim indoors in different parts of the building, and on Shabbat outside and in different areas inside. For us, it’s really driven by CDC and government directives, so we’re constantly having to adjust. And we consult our medical experts every time we make an adjustment.”

Rinat, which has 430 full-member families and 120 affiliate members, offers virtual programming almost every day. One popular program Ms. Yurowitz told her colleagues about is an ulpan — an intensive Hebrew language class — on beginner and advanced levels, now in its third semester.

Looking toward the future, she said, “A big topic is eating indoors. A frequent question that came up is when can we have kiddush again? And what is the impact of people who have had covid or who have had vaccines? What will davening look like? We don’t really have answers, because this situation has made it almost impossible to make plans. People call about rentals, and we just don’t know what will be in a month or two.”

Ms. Yurowitz said that Rinat has a reopening committee that communicates many times every week around such questions, and she found it helpful to hear from voices outside the Rinat community. “This can be a really solitary job, and it’s good to come together and have conversations at these conferences,” she said. “When you put together 50 minds, it’s always better than one.”

Ruth Hartstein, director of operations at 246 member-family Kehillat Kesher, agreed.

Although she is part of an online group of peers working at other synagogues, she said, “I work alone, and our rabbi is a full-time teacher, so it was great to converse with other directors and hear of things that may be worth trying. We all operate in our little microcosms, so this was an unusual opportunity.”

She found a session on programming and project ideas for engaging members within the constraints of social distancing to be “super helpful.” She also told the group about Kesher’s own success stories.

“One idea that piqued the interest of the moderator and other shuls in my breakout group was a program our youth leadership has innovated called Youth Groups Come to You,” she said. “We have maybe 800 children in our shul and we normally offer youth groups for ages 2 to junior congregation for post-bar and bat mitzvah. Our families have been missing that.”

The shul’s creative response to this lack was to divide the membership into 10 geographic areas. Every week, members in one area are invited to sign up for Youth Groups Come to You. Youth Director Michael Goldman leads the children in learning and games outside one house in the neighborhood.

“Another program we have had is new-member parties on Zoom for the 20 new member families that have joined Kesher during the past year,” Ms. Hartstein said. She noted that some of these new members moved out of Manhattan, a common phenomenon during the pandemic.

“We had two events in early fall outdoors in our permanent tent,” she added. One program was a class on floral arrangements; each participant created one bouquet to take home and another to donate to a local senior center.

Two mixology classes, led by a member who is a caterer, were sold out with 10 couples each night. Then there was an online book discussion with Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman, who lives in Israel, about his newly published “Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith.”

Kesher even dreamed up a “drive-by kiddush” in honor of Rabbi Akiva Block’s 10th anniversary with the congregation. Members drove by, wished him mazal tov, and picked up a prepacked kiddush-in-a-box.

“We’re trying to find ways to keep people connected,” Ms. Hartstein said. “Every member has a different reason for wanting to come to shul, and we try to touch on all those things. We try to offer a wide variety of programming and I shared all these ideas at the conference.”

David Paris, the executive director of Mount Freedom Jewish Center — the largest non-Chabad Orthodox community in Morris County, with approximately 150 member units — said the conference gave him some more ideas to bring to the lay leadership.

“We have now started to get much more involved in covid vaccine support,” he said. “We always had some information on our website, but now we’ve added a link to vaccine information. And we are in the process of collecting names and birthdates of members over 40 to try to help people get registered as soon as they can.”

Mr. Paris also followed up on an idea that he heard at the conference. It was about working with local officials to offer space in the synagogue or its parking lot for vaccinations. “We have not been successful in this so far, mainly because there just isn’t enough vaccine out there even for current vaccination centers,” he said.

Another suggestion he took to heart was that each shul’s reopening committee should include someone with legal expertise.

“Our reopening committee has religious, programming, and medical individuals and not legal, so we are looking into adding someone from the legal community to add that perspective,” Mr. Paris said.

The Orthodox Union’s executive vice president, Rabbi Moshe Hauer, said that participants came from synagogues in California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Toronto.

“With limited in-person attendance as mandated by each state’s unique situation, these synagogues had to rapidly pivot to address their communities’ needs as well as the economic impact the pandemic had on their members and how it would affect the synagogues’ future participation and stability,” he said.

“As we look to the near future, and hopefully a period of successful and expedited vaccine administration, many of our shuls are left contemplating what’s next and how to resume their pre-covid-19 normal operations once it’s safe to do so,” Yehuda Friedman, the OU’s Long Island and Queens regional director for synagogue and community services, said. “It’s inspiring to see how these executive directors rose to the challenges of the moment and keep forging along during this tumultuous time.”

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