People want to connect.
“They’re craving opportunities to see each other and be close to each other,” said Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, explaining why Closter’s Temple Emanu-El offers so many drive-thrus for its members.
“We’ve been doing them since the end of spring,” he said. “We needed some points to connect with people.” So congregants were invited to receive challah before attending open-air Friday night services; to get apples, honey, and honey cake on Rosh Hashanah; to take ice cream from ice cream trucks many times; to wave the lulav in a parking lot on Sukkot; and now, for Thanksgiving, to give back to the community by donating food.
Rabbi Kirshner has seen certain trends in how members have reacted to the pandemic and how it has affected their relationship to the synagogue. “The people who love the shul have seen it as a touchstone for the important parts of their life,” he said. “Its value is incalculable. For others, for those who have been substantially hit by the pandemic, some felt that the synagogue was the first thing they needed to abdicate financially.” And of course, some — as happened in all synagogues — lost not only their money but their lives.
Still, Rabbi Kirshner insisted that it is unacceptable to the synagogue to lose a member over covid for financial reasons. “If some business got stuck,” he said, the affected member(s) “would not be lost to us.”
The drive-thrus have drawn between 100 and 250 cars, “depending on different factors,” Rabbi Kirshner said, noting that the challah give-away was extremely popular, as were the ice-cream trucks. The Sukkot event — where gloved staff members gave out hot cocoa along with a lulav for a ritual shake — also was a big draw.
The upcoming Thanksgiving drive-thru was envisioned slightly differently. “We’re still in the mindset of programming,” Rabbi Kirshner said, discussing the upcoming event, to be held on November 18 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. “While we’re challenged, we have it better than a lot of others,” he added, referring to the majority of his members. “Food pantries are depleted. Giving food is a good thing to do.” The food collected at the drive will be divided between the Closter Food Pantry and the Center for Food Action.
To incentivize this giving, the rabbi reached out to Adam Steinberg, co-owner of Zadies Bake Shop in Fair Lawn. People who donate at least one pound of non-perishable food will receive a gift bag containing one of Zadie’s mini-meltaways.
“He wanted to be part of this mitzvah,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “He said they wished they could do this for free, but they’re also victims of the pandemic. But they gave us an incredibly reduced fee.” More than just helping, “they’re partnering with us in helping the community.”
The pandemic has affected Temple Emanu-El in a variety of ways. The synagogue now hosts b’nai mitzvah every week, and allows up to 40 people, “masked and socially distant,” to be in the synagogue. “We take their information in case they need to be contact-traced,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “We’re having Friday night outdoors and will continue to do that.” In addition, he added, the synagogue offers regular programming online almost every day. “But we still need human interaction,” he said. “It serves an important purpose.”
Mr. Steinberg of Zadie’s said that he is providing the shul with 225 cakes, at a substantial discount. “The rabbi called and said he was doing a food drive to fill up food pantries,” he said. “I thought, if we can use our platform and our products to incentivize more people to contribute, why not do it? We love helping the community.”
Mr. Steinberg said the pandemic definitely has affected his business. But while sales in some areas, like catering, have gone down, “we’ve seen a lot of new faces. A lot of people have made an effort to shop local. It’s definitely helping us. We’re still a local establishment, a mom and pop store. Some people are coming in who we haven’t seen before.”
The store also has started to make new products. “We started making small individual cakes, paying more attention to the times we’re living in,” Mr. Steinberg said. “We’re making smaller, more individualized items,” realizing that people generally are not buying for company now, but for two or three people. This approach, he said, “has paid off and we’ll continue to try new products.” As a side benefit, “It makes people want to crawl out of their holes and take a trip.” The shop allows four masked people in at a time, standing an appropriate distance apart.
Mr. Steinberg said he was flattered that Rabbi Kirshner asked him to participate in the food drive, but “anytime we get any business, it’s an amazing thing, especially to get a call from someone you don’t normally do business with.
“What’s he’s doing is also an amazing thing — to ask people to give at a time like this. If we can be of any help, it’s a great thing to be a part of.”