With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic during the spring, Beth Israel Congregation made the difficult choice to close its doors and switch to online programming.
“It was only a couple of weeks before Passover, so we had to figure out very quickly how to get a lot of our regular programming and services online,” said Valerie Thaler, Beth Israel’s synagogue director.
Thaler said the congregation’s staff was faced with a steep learning curve under a tight timetable, as the shul didn’t want its members to experience an undue interruption in the type of programming or services they were accustomed to. “We didn’t want there to be a big gap where they just wouldn’t hear from us or wouldn’t see us,” she said.
Heidi Hoffman, president of Beth Israel, described the situation the staff was facing in those early days as “hectic, but almost inspirational.”
“They were driven by the desire to keep us connected, to put together the infrastructure so that we could still worship as a community,” she said.
Much like with any new tool, it took time to grow accustomed to using online platforms. Staff experimented to determine best practices. The staff initially began with livestreamed services in the sanctuary. “Then we realized that people preferred to have more of an interactive experience where they could see each other’s faces,” Thaler said. This eventually led to the use of Zoom sessions.
The next big challenge, Thaler said, revolved around how they could hold Passover celebrations in a virtual environment. They found their answer with a Passover toolbox, which contained activities that congregants could engage in while at home. Additionally, the synagogue organized a virtual seder on the second night, hosted by the shul’s cantor.
Within the first month of the pandemic, Beth Israel also put together a large group of staff and congregants tasked with periodically calling every family in the congregation to check in with them and how they had been coping. While normally the calls’ recipients would report they had everything they needed, Thaler said, occasionally they would request prayer books, assistance with online platforms like Zoom or a regular phone buddy they could speak with on a weekly basis to feel less isolated.
Requests for technology support increased significantly with the approach of the High Holidays, Thaler said. Many congregants who wanted to view services from home hadn’t tried logging in before.
One series of events that Hoffman mentioned were Beth Israel’s Tailgate Shabbats, where attendees participated in an outdoors, socially distanced Shabbat services, listening to the rabbi and cantor while sitting near their cars.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” Hoffman said. “We had 50, 60 cars of members being together. Even though we couldn’t be close, we were there for each other.”
“We are adapting to a very changed environment to the best of our ability,” Thaler said. “We’re trying very hard to stay in touch with our members, help them feel connected and to help our community to stay strong in a time of a lot of social challenges and health challenges.”
“We are not our building,” Hoffman said. “We are Beth Israel. We are our membership. So even though we have not been able to be together in our building together, we are still together as members through the ways we’ve been able to connect and stay together.”