Over the past two weeks, the COVID-19 virus has brought unprecedented change to the North Shore Jewish community. Until at least mid-April – and likely longer – all synagogues, community centers, and schools have closed their doors and canceled or postponed all events in an effort to slow the spread of the global pandemic. The Lappin Foundation has also canceled its Youth to Israel summer trip.
These are drastic measures, but many community leaders have said that after consulting with medical experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they had no other choice.
“Our tradition teaches that pikuach nefesh ‒ saving lives – outweighs everything else,” Rabbi Alison Adler of Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly wrote to her congregation in a March 13 email that announced the cancellation of all synagogue programs for at least two weeks.
As recently as early March, most institutions remained open, but were considering limited services. All that changed on March 11 when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic and cases in the United States began rising sharply.
Soon after, the North Shore Rabbis and Cantors Association met to discuss the next steps. “As things changed hour by hour, it really became very clear that there was not a whole lot of decision to be made,” said Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, who conferred regularly with his congregation’s medical advisory team. “We take very seriously our responsibility to be engaged citizens, to protect one another at a time of public crisis, and to look after one another as a broader community.”
In a time of fear and enforced isolation, community and connection are needed more than ever. Thanks to creativity, compassion, video conferencing technology, and a broad range of services from Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Jewish life continues.
“The temple building is closed, but the synagogue is open, because the synagogue is made up of people,” said Meyer. Emanu-El, like many other Jewish institutions right now, is still able to reach its congregants because it streams all of its services through Facebook Live and its classes and meetings through Zoom, an online video service that allows users to clearly see and hear everyone else logged on during the gathering.
Since the pandemic forced most people indoors, there has been a Zoom boom on the North Shore and around the world. Right now, many synagogues are streaming all of their usual services, from morning minyan to Shabbat to evening minyan, through different onlinbe video series. As shuls get used to the technology and figure how to modify accordingly, they also are preparing to incorporate courses, discussion groups, and Hebrew school classes.
While everyone agrees that there is no substitute for in-person contact, rabbis report that their Zoom services have been going well. “I’m doing services every night at 7, last Friday night we started Shabbat services,” said Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody. “We have had in our chatroom and through streaming on YouTube an average of 60 attending weeknights, whereas we sometimes have a problem getting a minyan on a weeknight.” Perlman also noticed that many participants log in early to have a chance to chat.
“I’m hearing from many people, ‘This is like a lifeline to us – it’s the ability for us to check in with each other and see each other,’” said Perlman.
Rabbi Michael Ragozin of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott also hosts morning and evening minyans and Shabbat services that are similar to regular services, although he’s noticed that group singing does not work well and the service needs more English readings than usual. Overall, Ragozin feels the services have brought in new worshippers looking to connect during a difficult time.
“Because of what’s happening in the rest of our lives with the social distancing, people are very happy to see each other show up for this experience, and some new people are connecting with us in this way,” he said. Congregations also have set up phone trees to check in regularly with as many congregants as possible, especially elderly or vulnerable ones.
Zoom and other forms of video conferencing are helping other Jewish institutions perform their functions at a time when everyone is encouraged to stay at least 6 feet apart, and gatherings in Massachusetts are restricted to 25 people. The Jewish Community Center of the North Shore in Marblehead – which announced on March 17 its temporary closure until at least April 7 – is currently working to make some of its classes and groups available online. In the meantime, the JCC has been posting fitness videos, links to entertainment, tips for staying busy and sane, and links to local resources on its social media accounts.
Local Jewish education is streaming as well. Hebrew schools are launching online activities that include video learning, video prayer, emailed worksheets, and family activities like challah baking or Passover preparation.
“We will be doing shorter classes online with more specifically targeted lesson planning … so that we can devote our efforts to keeping a sense of a learning community,” wrote Janis Knight, director of Shirat Hayam’s Center for Jewish Education, in an email. “We are making use of a lot of modes – self-paced learning, online connection, flipped classroom methods [first giving students the opportunity to view materials privately and discuss in a group].”
The Epstein Hillel School in Marblehead closed on March 13 and spent the next few days preparing what it is calling “EHS Babayit,” Hebrew for “EHS at home,” which uses a hybrid approach to remote learning to combine synchronous and asynchronous lessons. Students in the second grade and above have iPads that enable them to access educational apps, participate in live classes with their teachers and peers through virtual meeting software, and complete assigned activities and projects through a secure online platform. EHS has also broadcast school events and Kabbalat Shabbat celebrations.
“Please know that we are working hard to provide an alternative experience that will be meaningful despite the fact that our students and teachers cannot physically be together,” wrote Head of School Amy Gold in an email to parents. “We pride ourselves on the close relationships between teachers and students, so this is challenging us to truly think outside the box.”
As North Shore institutions and organizations work to keep going in this unprecedented situation, CJP is offering advice and resources. “I’ve spent much of the past week in touch with organizations and community members, talking about how CJP can play a positive role in helping people find the assistance they need while staying connected and engaged Jewishly during a very challenging time,” Rabbi Marc Baker, CJP president, wrote in a March 15 letter to the community.
At a time of crisis, CJP is offering funding and advice. It recently launched a Coronavirus Emergency Fund that will provide targeted financial and social support to vulnerable and isolated populations in Greater Boston. As of March 24, the fund had raised $805,000 from almost 285 donors. CJP has also offered to pay the Zoom fees of any organization that requests it.
CJP also will host webinars on “Fundraising in Unpredictable Times,” “Creating Virtual Community,” and “Running Effective Virtual Board Meetings,” and offer expert support in social services, running day schools, and supporting virtual Jewish learning. It also has launched a website, jewishboston.com/coronavirus, which offers practical advice and moral support.
Finally, CJP relationship directors have been in regular communication with local institutions to assess their needs. Rabbis have appreciated the help of Beth Tauro, CJP’s director of planning, outreach, and engagement and North Shore liaison.
The COVID-19 pandemic is proving a painful test of community cohesion, but many believe that like other crises, it is bringing people together. “The world is going through a collective tragedy right now,” said Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman of Chabad of Peabody. “But when we get to the other side of it, hopefully we’ll be a kinder, nicer, more united society.”