An ocean and more than 6,000 miles separate Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Leesburg and the New Kehila of Ramat Aviv in Israel, but the two Conservative synagogues are using technology to bridge the distance and bring their two congregations together.
“This is such a win-win, such an amazing opportunity to build unity between our two communities,” said Rabbi Neil Tow of Sha’are Shalom. “We’re really excited about this and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to work on it.”
Tow said the two congregations have formed a partnership using online meeting platforms such as Zoom. The partnership launched last month, when Rabbi Jeff Cymet of The New Kehila joined a meeting of the Sha’are Shalom board of directors via Zoom.
“When Rabbi Tow first shared the idea of the partnership with Rabbi Cymet, I was beyond excited,” board president Erica Harris said in an email. “The more I heard and learned, the more enthusiastic I felt.”
The congregations are planning a joint series of online adult education sessions about preparing for the High Holidays in a spiritual way. The series will begin Aug. 8.
Tow said he and Cymet are also developing a teen program, bringing together teenagers at Sha’are Shalom and in Israel via an online meeting platform.
The joint activities are “especially meaningful for the religious school students of Congregation Sha’are Shalom,” Harris said. “We live in an area where our Jewish community is pretty small. To know that they have the chance to really connect with Jewish students in Israel helps them see that we, as a community, are much larger than it feels like at home.
The rabbis are planning for the congregations to share holiday messages, to create opportunities for social interactions and work to raise awareness of the Masorti (Conservative) community in Israel.
“Our biggest dream,” Tow said, “hopefully in the not-too-distant future, is to send a mission to Israel to meet face-to-face.”
Tow said that he has had a long relationship with the Masorti community in Israel, and had met Cymet on a previous visit.
During the most recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Tow said he worked with his congregation to create a video message of support for their counterparts in Israel. That gave Tow the idea to build an ongoing partnership with The New Kehila congregation.
“As soon as I mentioned it to Rabbi Cymet, he was very excited, and we started brainstorming ideas,” Tow said. “That’s the genesis of it.”
Tow said that he hopes to use the program to raise awareness among Conservative American Jews that there are egalitarian, Conservative communities in Israel.
“We hope to show that the type of Judaism we practice here is growing in Israel as well,” Tow said.
Cymet said he’s looking forward to bringing the two congregations closer together.
“People often talk about how American Jews are becoming more distant from Israeli Jews, and vice versa,”Cymet said. “Sometimes it’s hard to maintain connections with family over an ocean. But when you take time to create Zoom events, to be in contact, to celebrate life together, you don’t feel so distant anymore and you get to appreciate that family really doesn’t have any boundaries.”