By Arielle Kaden
Third in a series of profiles of rabbis new in the Washington region.
There’s no class in rabbinical school on how to lead a congregation through a pandemic, let alone begin a new role as rabbi of a synagogue during one. For Rabbi Michael Werbow, who started his position at Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington on July 1, these past few months have provided a master class in building a digital community.
Werbow, who most recently served as the rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Sarasota, Fla., was able to begin communicating with his new congregants earlier than July because of the synagogue’s meetings over Zoom. Since formally starting his position, he’s taken the reins in bringing the Tifereth Israel community together, primarily through virtual Shabbat services, socially distanced meals hosted at his home, and a series of meet and greets with the rabbi where he’s met many congregants and heard their stories.
He’s hosted more than 20 of these meetings, and plans to lead many more. Werbow said that in addition to the meet and greets allowing him to speak with fellow congregants, these small-group conversations allow congregants to meet each other, and digitally remove the distance between them.
“Some people know everybody on the screen,” he said. “And some people know others, but not that well, and when somebody shares for five minutes about their life story, people find out something new.”
Werbow’s main goal in leading his Conservative congregation through the COVID-19 pandemic is simple. “The biggest mission is making sure everybody is OK and connected,” he said, adding that he loves seeing the 80 to 90 faces that show up to Shabbat services on Zoom. After the service, he divides the congregation into breakout rooms where he can check in with each small group.
Werbow has been preparing to lead High Holiday services virtually. A group of 10 congregants will join him in the sanctuary to form a minyan, and wearing his High Holiday garb, Werbow will stand on the bimah and lead the service to the rest of his congregation via Zoom.
“We’ve seen how resilient people are,” he said, “and how resilient many Jewish organizations are. We are able to pivot at a moment’s notice to completely change our way of connecting with one another.”
While Werbow does not think Zoom serves as an ideal substitute for in-person community building, he thinks that the people in his congregation will learn a lot from this time of pandemic.
“It will be additive for unity,” he said. “People will want to be back in person…I think when this is over, people will be thirsting to be back together again and at the same time, we’ve been able to recognize how we can promote what we do to people that can’t be in person with us, for whatever reason.”