Like many synagogues, Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington has shuttered its doors and halted all face-to-face gatherings. The last Shabbat the Conservative synagogue celebrated inside its building was March 14.
But do not think for one minute that Jewish learning and observance have come to a screeching halt. It is just virtual now. Virtual religious school classes. Virtual meetings. And ample opportunities to learn and discuss through email blasts that Rabbi Lia Bass is sending.
“My feeling is, we Jews have been very creative for many, many centuries, and we have dealt with crises that were huge throughout our lives, and we adapted, one way or another,” said Bass, who has led the congregation since 2001. She will be stepping down at the end of July.
“It is a way of responding. We have had practice for centuries, unfortunately.”
For Bass and her congregation’s 170 families, the coronavirus crisis is taking place during a time of easy access to the internet, especially Zoom video conferencing.
Shabbat services will not be held at least through April 11. Religious school classes won’t be meeting in the building until April 14, or whenever Arlington public schools reopen.
“We cancelled everything inside the building,” Bass said.
However, Bass as well as other synagogue staff and lay leaders believe it is important to keep up communications. Everyone is coming up with ways to connect the community, she said.
Religious school will continue, with individual classes participating in Zoom conferences with their teachers.
Synagogue and communal life continues through Zoom, she said, adding that there have been many short lessons taught on the technology that allows multiple people to speak and see each other on their computer screens simultaneously.
Bass held her biweekly class on the book of Judges via Zoom. She quickly followed that class with another Zoom meeting with synagogue employees to work out how upcoming Havdalah events could still go on.
Then it was time to prepare the Kabbalat Shabbat to be streamed on the congregation’s Facebook Live page.
“It’s a whole new thing. We had to go over a bunch of things, but it worked. It’s easy,” she said of Zoom.
Etz Hayim decided not to cybercast its Shabbat services for fear that something could go wrong, she said.
Instead, she is sending out a summary of the week’s Torah portion with questions. “I’m suggesting people do it at their homes, at the dinner table,” she explained.
She also is sending out a daily bissel (Yiddish for “little bit”) post through email for people to read and discuss.
Sending out these tidbits is important, Bass said. Even more important is “making sure people understand we are not alone. That we are together.”
She realizes not everyone will be reading her texts, but then again, not everyone comes to services each Shabbat, she said.
Ideas to keep congregants engaged also have come from a Jewish Federation of Greater Washington online community of religious leaders, she said.
From one suggestion, Etz Hayim has decided to postpone its b’nai mitzvah and “offering to so something as soon as the crisis is over,” she said.
But rather than make the students learn a new Torah portion to match their new date, the synagogue will conduct their celebrations Saturday afternoon, after regular Shabbat services that morning.
It is not so much to ease the burden on the young people as it is to allow them to still celebrate the portion they have learned and studied for a year, Bass explained.
“There is still some emotional attachment to this.”
She believes when the pandemic subsides, and people are free to go as they please and mingle in groups, synagogue life will spring up again.
“I am not concerned,” she said. “The people who come to services, I think are going to come back immediately, and the people who never come, will continue not to come.”
Suzanne Pollak is a Washington-area writer.