The town of Teaneck has more than its share of Covid cases. But it also has a town administration that has proved to be not only responsive but also proactive in the face of this challenge.
“Teaneck has been at the forefront in reaching out and communicating with our residents,” said Elie Katz, a former town mayor and now a deputy mayor. “We were the first community to initiate town-wide phone calls, shut houses of worship and businesses, and push social distancing and voluntary quarantine. And we’ve shown that our efforts have literally saved lives.
“The numbers speak for themselves.”
If Mr. Katz, Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin, and Deputy Mayor Mark Schwartz are committed to staying in touch with residents, it is because “this is when they need leaders, and different residents have different needs,” Mr. Katz said. As a result, the town has organized virtual mental health meetings as well as meetings with merchants and other groups.
Still, he said, “religion is also an important part of Teaneck, with 53 houses of worship of all kinds.” But houses of worship are now closed, and “several residents have said they’re finding it very difficult to believe in God at this time,” especially when they’ve suffered covid tragedies in their own families.
To address residents’ need for spiritual comfort, the mayor and two deputy mayors organized a community interfaith prayer call, held on Sunday at 3 p.m. Saying that “During These Challenging Times, We Can All Use Some Strengthening of Our Spiritual Health,” the invitation ultimately drew more than 375 virtual attendees.
The three Teaneck leaders delivered opening remarks, followed by religious leaders Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky of Congregation Beth Sholom; the Rev. Greg Jackson, the pastor of Olive Baptist Church; Pastor Jusung Kim of Good News Church; Reverend Dr. Keith Attles of Covenant Life Ministries Church; and Imam Sayeed Quereshi of Darul-Islah Mosque. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Dist. 5) delivered the closing remarks.
“It’s not for everyone,” Mr. Katz said. “It’s one of many needs. Some feel they need the spiritual strength.” And judging by the “immediate feedback — I had more than 20 emails in my box,” it was a success, and it will be repeated each Sunday during the coronavirus crisis.
Deputy Mayor Schwartz called the service “inspirational.” He said that he got the idea for the call when he realized that past tragedies have been met with communal prayers, whether they were held in a mosque after the massacre in New Zealand or in synagogues in the aftermath of Pittsburgh.
“In light of this, I thought, let’s have a prayer,” he said. “The next question was where. The conference call was the perfect answer.”
Believing that a diverse community should reflect the different religious cultures of its members — he favors both public Christmas trees and public Chanukah candle-lighting — Mr. Schwartz noted the irony of having “In God we Trust” on our money while not allowing these holiday symbols. He’s hopeful that people will leave the calls with renewed “hope, faith, and prayer. There’s so little we can do right now. Our houses of worship are closed and something was missing.
“We’ve gotten more feedback than we expected,” he said, adding that anybody from any community can join the calls. “Our religious leaders want to reach out to colleagues, to townspeople, and to assure them that we’re all in the same boat. We’re in this together.”
For his part, the mayor said that “the vast majority of people believe in God in one way or another and turn to faith in times of stress.” He was receptive to the idea of the conference call because he saw a need “to all just get together and talk about our feelings and the higher purpose of what we’re going through.”
All the religious leaders “asked for patience and prayed that we would come out stronger, that this would bring out the best of humanity and we would succeed in passing this test,” Mayor Hameeduddin said. He hopes that more religious communities will join the calls; invitations have been sent to all 53 of Teaneck’s houses of worship.
Mayor Hameeduddin noted that the calls are open to people from other towns as well. To honor the separation between church and state, the call was not under the auspices of the township but rather was arranged by the three town officials — one Muslim and two Orthodox Jews — in their personal capacities.
Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, who spoke on the conference call, said he was invited to participate and was drawn to the idea that “with all the effort going into taking care of our physical well-being, we shouldn’t forget our spiritual well-being. We need to come together as a community.
“I readily agreed to participate,” he said. “Each of us had a few minutes to speak. All of us tried to speak about the power of community and offer our thanks to the civic leaders and medical personnel on the front lines of this.”
Among the ways people can help are by calling each other, supporting each other through email, or providing material support, Rabbi Pitkowsky said. Holy Name Hospital needs financial support, he said, but it’s also important not to forget Englewood and Hackensack hospitals as well. He also noted the importance of blood donations. “We can also show support by staying home and following the rules of social distancing,” he said. “It’s not a natural way — we’re used to showing support by being active.
“It was wonderful to come together and know that we’re all in this together,” he concluded. “We all put aside our differences in terms of religion and theology in order to come together for the common good.
“What we have in common is more important than our differences.”