Safe Haven: Amid Social Distancing, Community Finds Refuge in Online Spaces

a group of people video chat into a Torah study
Members and guests of Hinenu digitally attend a Shabbat morning Torah study

“Jewish community is fundamentally a community that meets in person, face to face,” said Rabbi Deborah Wechsler of Chizuk Amuno Congregation. “We gather for prayer, study, for life cycle events. We do acts of love and kindness for one another, and we are accustomed to doing that personally with friends and others. So now it’s very challenging when the primary way that we as Jews have always interacted with each other has been taken away from us.”

In addition to impacting the work lives and social lives of the Baltimore community, COVID-19 has also proven itself a detriment to people’s spiritual lives. Warned to shut their doors for the health and wellbeing of their congregants, Jewish spaces of worship and culture have been forced to retool their programming into an online format.

Since the closure of their physical building March 12, Chizuk Amuno has begun to livestream its Shabbat services.

Other congregations in the area have similarly followed suit, such as Columbia Jewish Congregation, according to Rabbi Sonya Starr. This is also true for Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebl, which has integrated its Shabbat services into its Makom Iti online community, according to Rabbi Ariana Katz. Additionally, Makom Iti will also feature morning prayers, candle lightings, and Torah studies.

Hinenu’s virtual offerings will also include writing workshops and classes organized by congregants, such as a challah baking class, Katz said. There will also be a 24/7 “schmooze room” for online visitors to have causal, informal conversations with others logged into the room. According to Katz, the shift to online offerings “came out of the desire to keep our community safe, while at the same time not wanting to feel apart from each other.”

Additionally, Hinenu is working to ensure its congregants continue to have what their physical needs require. “We’re working to group small households to keep watch over each other, share resources, help each other out if needed,” Katz said. “Our hope is that the local groups will respond to calls for help from the local community.”

CJC is working on ways to provide educational services to its students in an online format and is hoping to offer a class on ways to prepare for Passover, said Starr. She encouraged her congregants “to reach out to us if they need anything, even if it’s just to talk.”

Starr acknowledged that communicating virtually is not ideal as there are “forms of communication that happen in person that are hard to express online. Also, not everyone has the necessary technology, or is adept at using it.” That being said, she stressed that the technology keeps people from being isolated, and that it is important for people to stay healthy by refraining from close contact with one another.

Synagogues have of course been far from the only spaces in the Jewish community that have had to adjust. The Jewish Museum of Maryland has also made the migration online, with plans to place its upcoming exhibit “Jews in Space” within a virtual format, according to Rachel Kassman, JMM’s development and marketing manager.

Part of the “Jews in Space” exhibit is a program called “Wondernauts,” said Kassman, and constitutes an online educational experience. Participants “can earn badges designing book covers, movie covers, creating their own planets,” she said. “It will include resources on how to train like an astronaut and how different cultures view constellations. Some activities will be for in front of a screen, while others will be meant to be done outside.”

Another online exhibit, “Beyond Chicken Soup,” will return to JMM after its 2016 departure for Cleveland, Ohio, Kassman said. The exhibit will focus on the history of Jews in the American medical field from the 1800s to modern times.

Kassman said that the JMM is looking to speed up the process of bringing back old exhibits in virtual form, along with other initiatives such as an online book club and a “program where people can transcribe our documents, giving them the chance to engage while giving back.”

“We’re trying to give people their own activities to do together at home, while still connecting with each other,” Kassman said. “We’re looking to build meaningful things that will have importance and worth as we continue into the future.”

In addition to its Shabbat services, Chizuk Amuno also provides online access to adult education classes, preschool classes on how to perform science experiments and bake banana bread, and the twice-a-day minyan.

Wechsler praised Chizuk Amuno’s staff for what they had been able to accomplish in such a short span of time, and stated that the crisis had forced her staff to get creative. She was also glad to report that daily service attendance has more than doubled, in some cases tripled, and she was also upbeat about the new opportunities for people to join services like the minyan and to participate in adult education.

“One of the really interesting benefits is that it’s brought in people who never before attended the daily minyan,” Wechsler said. “People from Baltimore and all over the country have been able to join us online. And it’s been so rewarding to be able to provide a haven for people.”

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