So, no congregants in synagogue seats mean a coronavirus-induced vacation for area rabbis, right? Think again, says Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel.
“I have been extremely, extremely busy during this time,” says Zemel, whose Temple Micah in Washington temporarily closed its doors in the second week of March.
First, the rabbi says, he has been trying to keep in touch with his congregants, especially people living alone and seniors, trying to make sure that those needing special help get it.
He also has been an integral part of the process of trying to put everything the Reform synagogue does online.
“We are slowing ramping up everyone’s ability to do everything on Zoom,” says the rabbi of the Reform synagogue, home to 630-membership units. So far, there have been two Zoom trainings for congregants, he says. (Zoom is a great resource for online activity, but Rabbi Zemel notes, there have been incidences reported — not at Temple Micah — in which hostile people have gotten access to synagogue activities via Zoom and disrupted them. He recommends notifying members through email, and not putting Zoom announcements in public places — like synagogue web sites,)
Among those activities going online are b’nai mitzvah, which require novel arrangements in this time of staying at home and social distancing when outside. It all started only a few days after the synagogue closed, when on Shabbat morning Rabbi Zemel conducted a bar mitzvah with 10 people present, live-screening the ceremony for family members, friends and other congregants.
That experiment apparently was successful because it is continuing. “We have no plans to cancel any bar or bat mitzvahs,” Zemel explains.
Insofar as other life-cycle events are concerned, two weddings have been postponed, he says.
Fortunately, there have been no deaths among congregants, although Zemel was slated to lead a shivah service for the father of a member. At funerals, Mourners Kaddish will be recited even in the absence of a minyan, according to the rabbi, as is the custom among most liberal congregations.
Temple Micah has virtual Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat morning services. He hoped that all groups, classes and activities would be up and running online by this week.
One of Temple Micah’s most ambitious programs is the Storefront Project, “an attempt to reimagine the synagogue in the 21st century and to be in conversation with people who are not part of the [Temple Micah’s] membership,” according to Rabbi Josh Beraha, who runs the program together with Rabbi Stephanie Crawley.
Friday night and Saturday morning services are periodically held at the seven Storefront locations around the District, with Jews and non-Jews taking part. (Rabbi Beraha says he doesn’t differentiate between Jews and non-Jews and therefore was unable to say how many of each group participate.)
At this point, “we’re trying to figure out how to do this online,” the rabbi says. So far, they have sent out a recording of a Young Family Shabbat service and an email asking people to support the different storefronts in which they pray.
Of course, a new environment throughout the synagogue requires new approaches. “We’ve been having meeting after meeting to see how these things will go,” Zemel says. “I’ve been more than busy.” As for his congregants, so far there have been no reported cases of COVID-19, the rabbi says. Many are volunteering, making sure, for example, that the elderly get food and medicine delivered to their homes.
Psychologically, congregants “are bearing up the best they can,” Zemel says. “On the whole, I think morale is good. One reason for this is a sense of relief that local governments have taken action, and there is some direction from somewhere. This is somewhat undermined by the double talk from the president. The more clarity there is and the more leaders listen to the advice of medical experts, the better the morale.”
Throughout the crisis, the rabbi says he has relied on the advice of three medical professionals who are members of Temple Micah. “I have consulted with all of them as to how to proceed.”
Despite his generally upbeat appraisal, he notes we are still in the early stages of the epidemic in America. “Who knows how people will feel in a few weeks with a heightened sense of desperation, fear and loneliness.”
Aaron Leibel is a Washington-area writer.