Online programs are here to stay, even as vaccinations ramp up

A Friday night service at Temple Isaiah
A Friday night service at Temple Isaiah (Eric McCormick)

As Baltimore-area synagogues begin to hold in-person services and programs, or as they begin to expand their in-person programming to pre-pandemic sizes, a number plan to continue with virtual programs as well.

In Fulton, Temple Isaiah has been holding some in-person programs — including limited in-person Shabbat morning services in their sanctuary to accommodate bar and bat mitzvah students, with attendance typically not greater than 30 — said Temple Isaiah Rabbi Craig Axler. During the summer and fall, the shul held outdoor Friday night services in their parking lot when the weather cooperated, and their religious school program has been
operating on a hybrid model.

While the term “reopening” does get used in Temple Isaiah discussions, Axler said, he emphasized that “we’ve never truly shut down,” aside from a few weeks at the height of the pandemic. Instead, he likes to speak of “a fuller return to in-person temple events and temple life.”

Temple Isaiah has been working with staff, lay leaders, medical professionals and public health experts over the last year, Axler said. “We’ve rekindled those discussions towards saying, ‘What does reopening look like for us in the various aspects of what the congregation does?’” he said.

Regardless of what happens with in-person programming, Axler said that online programming is here to stay.

“Though we have been streaming our services online for five years now, the level of viewer participation has grown exponentially during this last year,” Axler said. Online programming “will be with us well beyond any full return to a post-pandemic world.”

Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills has been holding programs mostly online, aside from some outdoor, in-person Friday evening services, as well as a few in-house b’nai mitzvah ceremonies, said Beth Israel Rabbi Jay R. Goldstein. Over the next month or so, Beth Israel plans to begin slowly experimenting with increased in-person services with limited numbers of people, Goldstein said.

At the same time, staff are working to ensure that virtual participation will remain an option going into the future, particularly for those congregants who are in independent living facilities, who have difficulty with driving or don’t yet feel comfortable returning in person.

“For a decade or more, synagogues have been looking to how we expand beyond the synagogue walls,” Goldstein said. “That was a common term, beyond the walls of the edifice of the synagogue. We’ve now accelerated that in a way that we could have never, never imagined a year ago.”

Meanwhile, Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Pikesville has been holding in-person services for months, though with smaller groups and frequently outside, said Cherie Brownstein, Beth Tfiloh Congregation’s synagogue program director. Over the next several months, Beth Tfiloh plans to look at how to expand in-person programming to a more pre-pandemic normal.

The synagogue has also still been organizing online events.

“They were a great addition or substitution, but people still are craving the ability to be in person,” Brownstein said.

Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville has been primarily online, with some exceptions, said Lee Sherman, the synagogue’s executive director.

The synagogue has recently started holding minyans on Monday evenings and Wednesday mornings with an in-person option for up to 30 individuals. The shul also has plans for socially distanced, outdoor Friday evening services for up to 70 participants.

Staff are currently looking at ways to include more people in in-person programs while still adhering to masking and social distancing to keep members as safe as possible.

Sherman is grateful that the community had effective tools for online communication when the pandemic hit.

“It’s been a difficult year as it is, and it certainly could have been much, much worse if we didn’t offer all these online opportunities,” he said.

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