In the absence of in-person services or events to celebrate major Jewish holidays, Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation turned to its holiday drive-by program to maintain a connection between the synagogue and the congregation.
“For each of the Jewish holidays during this past pandemic year, we reached out to our congregants by giving them a bag with holiday-related items and goodies so that we could celebrate remotely,” said Aviva Janus, Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom director of congregational learning and programming. “It was an opportunity for us to connect with our congregants and have them at least swing by the temple and give a wave to some of the staff and clergy here, and also to obtain useful and fun items for each of the holidays.”
“It’s a wonderful way to meet congregants during this time because of the COVID,” said Marlene Pachino, an administrative assistant at Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom. “That’s the way of cheering people up for the holidays. And it’s a way of celebrating the holiday even though we can’t be in temple itself.”
The drive-by program began a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah 2020, Janus said, in part as a way to give machzorim, along with honey cake and other holiday treats, to congregants. Some bags also contained Shabbat siddurim for those who wanted them. Several hundred congregants swung by, she said.
The drive-bys typically feature items related to the holiday or event being celebrated, Janus said. For Sukkot, members came by to shake the lulav and etrog and say a blessing. For Chanukah, the program provided congregants with dreidels, candles, gelt and a latke recipe. For Purim, it was hamantaschen and groggers to shake during a virtual megillah reading, while Passover saw staff giving out Pesach cookbooks and wine glasses.
Presently, the synagogue is organizing a Shavuot drive-by, which will include slices of cheesecake and Milk Duds for the dairy-themed holiday, Janus said. Additionally, another drive-by is being organized for June to celebrate Pride Month, with rainbow-themed items.
Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom is also planning to organize a Rosh Hashanah drive-by again this year, Janus said. “It’s sad that we have to do it, but we were able to create a system where we could connect with our members,” she said.
The process of assembling and distributing the items for the holiday drive-bys typically starts with a meeting on what items to include, Janus said, after which she will order everything needed. Staff members then collect the items into individual gift bags, which normally comes to between 150 and 200 gift bags per event, he said.
“Our rabbi and other staff members stand outside, sometimes in the freezing cold, or heat,” Janus said. “The first drive-by we did for Rosh Hashanah was quite hot out.”
For the initial High Holiday drive-by, congregants ordered their gift bags beforehand, Janus explained. All the subsequent drive-bys were significantly less structured, with congregants simply pulling up to the shul at certain hours to pick up their gift bags.
“[Congregants] love them,” Pachino said. “And especially the elderly who do not drive. There have been a few people who have taken some of those bags and dropped them off at their homes … and they are thrilled. And they’ve gotten thank you notes from people and phone calls.”
“Our members love coming to pick up the bags, they love feeling a connection,” Janus said. “They very much enjoy stopping by, picking up the bags, seeing what goodies are in there and helping to celebrate the holiday together as a community, even though we’re all in our own homes.”