Between the fear of contracting a serious illness and the increasing apprehension over the state of the economy, COVID-19 has exacted a heavy toll on the American psyche. In such times, it is perfectly natural to seek support from community and spiritual leaders, such as local rabbis. Unfortunately, the danger the virus poses would only increase if the community sought such guidance face-to-face.
“It’s very frustrating being a rabbi at this time, because you can’t be there for people at a time of great need, whether it’s visiting someone at a hospital or making a condolence call,” said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation. “This is a time when people most need their rabbi, and most of it is being done by way of computer or telephone.”
While the transition from in-person to online communication is widely regarded as necessary, that does not mean it was easy.
“At first there was a lot of resistance to canceling services, and a desire to underestimate the extent and the power of the virus to be a source of danger,” said Rabbi Rory Katz of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation. “But then our community saw that we were putting our lives at risk by gathering, and we decided we can no longer ask people to practice dangerous behavior, and so we made the decision to move our services online.”
Thankfully, Katz said that the transition from an in-person synagogue to an online one was relatively quick, and that the problem has drawn out people’s creativity. She was particularly grateful to see that attendance at online Shabbat services, which she viewed as her community’s center, remained high in the new format.
“In some ways it’s been very powerful to see that come alive,” Katz said, “because you really feel that everyone is still showing up to our virtual gatherings, and there is still this strong desire to connect with one another.”
Beth Tfiloh has also had significant success in the online transition, Wohlberg said, utilizing Zoom meetings and sending out daily emails to congregants.
Still, “Facebook isn’t the same as face to face,” Wohlberg said.
Wohlberg said he was glad that people were taking social distancing seriously. “They know how important it is, and we keep imparting that importance,” he said. “And every rabbi in Baltimore has endorsed separation as a religious obligation, not to be together or even to pray together.”
Katz, however, saw the matter differently. “A lot of people have been asking me what I’m doing for seder, if I’m going anywhere or visiting family,” she said. “And I’m shocked when they ask me this, as I’m taking the stay-at-home order so seriously.
“I still find people thinking it’s OK to not take social distancing seriously, and I think that’s part of the denial that comes with grief,” Katz continued. “There is such a strong desire for Jews to want to gather, and I’m struggling with it too. But I need to give a very strong message. … We need to protect each other’s lives by staying in our homes as much as we can.”
“We Jews have faced a lot of challenges in the past, and we have overcome them, and we will overcome this as well,” Wohlberg said.
At the same time, Katz sees an opportunity for improvement. “The rabbis moved so many rituals from the ancient Temple to the table when the Temple was destroyed,” she said. “The Temple used to be the place to have great feasts, and to worship God while taking a break from their everyday lives. And that’s now what the table is. And we’re used to that being a happy time, and there’s a sense of loss now that we can’t all be together.
“But maybe, with that loss, we can feel that longing for a larger community that the ancient Temple represented, a place for all of the peoples.”