Connection in a Time of Social Isolation: Here's What Synagogue Life Looks Like Right Now

March 18, 2020Audrey Merwin

There’s no question that the coronavirus crisis has affected each and every one of us, regardless of health status. Every day for the past few weeks, each of us has weighed the relative value of in-person classes, meetings, and get-togethers versus the potential risk of exposure.

We’ve relearned the skill of correctly washing our hands and getting to “clean.” We’ve embraced new and humorous alternatives to the traditional handshake, making do with air-kiss greetings. And we’ve been bombarded with news stories, information, and misinformation about increasing numbers of people infected, quarantines, and travel bans.

All of this is not merely disconcerting, it’s downright anxiety-provoking. And just as we begin to settle in and adjust to new habits and routines, a whole new level of changes is upon us with closings of schools, sports and entertainment venues, and, potentially, public transportation.

This situation brings with it a new community-wide challenge.

With some governments restricting public gatherings to under 500 or even 100 people, how are we supposed to communicate? As human beings, we crave social interaction. If we can’t physically gather to pray, kibitz, learn, nosh, hang out, and volunteer, how can we function as a community?

In the new paradigm of the COVID-19 era, synagogues and Jewish communities across North America are seeking answers to these questions – and there’s no-one-size-fits-all solution.

My own synagogue has weathered a few disasters, including Superstorm Sandy and 9/11, and has since developed ways to mobilize resources to help ensure the health and safety of our congregants. Here are a few things we’re doing and planning to do, with the goal of leaving no member behind:

1. We’re streaming services online.

Restrictions on the number of people who may gather together in person make it infeasible to hold public worship services. Many Reform congregations have long been streaming Shabbat and holiday services; others are turning to streaming during this troubling time.

Last week, my congregation set up our first-ever streaming service, allowing anyone to log on and “attend” Shabbat services (and other worship services) remotely. Attending a virtual service is certainly different from being there: There’s no sitting in the pews, delighting in the stained-glass windows, or feeling the holiness of the glorious sanctuary.

But remaining in community with so many others – including some whose whereabouts stretch way beyond the defined geographic scope of the local synagogue community – offers solidarity, shared experience, and connection.  

2. We’ve set up a telephone tree.

A large number of volunteers are helping to make this happen: Each volunteer checks in by phone or email with 30 synagogue members to ask how they are doing and see what, if any, their particular needs may be.

If they’re doing fine, great; the volunteer sets a date for the next check in. If the congregant shares specific needs, though, the volunteer gets to work contacting a relevant subject matter experts – other volunteers who have made themselves available to address issues ranging from childcare to food and supplies to medical issues.

3. We’re implementing a buddy system.

We’re working to set up virtual one-one-one “coffee” dates for those who request it, allowing members to see and talk with each other using services like Skype, FaceTime, and Duo. This is particularly good for the elderly, those who live alone, and those who are most at-risk for losing contact with the community.

4. We’re hosting online classes and meetings.

Fortunately, our synagogue was already using Zoom for virtual meetings and sometimes adult education – and the coming weeks will see this usage increase many times over.

Board and committee meetings will take place via Zoom and audio conference services. Adult education classes that were previously held in-person will move to Zoom. And we plan to have learning center classes and individual teaching sessions move to the online platform, as well. As a 7th-grade learning center teacher, I’m looking forward to seeing it all unfold.

Yes, we are in uncharted territory. And in this time, we need to welcome new ways of being together – to shore up, to nurture, and to just get through this together, for as long as this new reality may last.

Not yet a member of a local Jewish community? Use our Find a Congregation tool to identify a synagogue near you, then call, email, or find them online to ask about what virtual offerings may be available during these troubling times. When the pandemic has passed, be sure to connect with them in person! 

If you're a synagogue leader looking for guidance, check "How Reform Congregations are Coping with COVID-19 (and Tools to Help)" for helpful resources from the Union for Reform Judaism. 

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