August 9, 2020
By Rabbi Benny Berlin
These last six months have been challenging for all of us as COVID-19 and its impact (both health and economic) ripple through nearly every town and city across America. It has been a time when those of faith turned to their spiritual leaders and where members of the clergy have been working around the clock to provide pastoral care to help as people go through these scary and tumultuous times. For me, taking over as the rabbi of one of Long Island, New York’s most prestigious synagogues during this pandemic has provided both a challenge and an opportunity, but most of all, it has forced me to be creative to develop ways that we can be “physically distanced, and socially together.” For four years, as I took course after course in my rabbinic seminary, I learned different ways to ingrain myself in the future community which I would lead; however, these last few months tore up the roadmap which we were taught in school, because all the normal ways to bond and get to know our congregants were thrown out the window and we needed to quickly develop new ways to do so.
Instead of attending welcome barbecues and meeting everyone at the synagogue on Friday evening or Saturday morning, I needed to get creative to figure out a way to meet with each member family and show my genuine desire to get to know them while also upholding the strictest COVID-19 guidelines. When I accepted this position back in January — before there was discussion of COVID-19 here in the United States — my wife and I would talk about our grand plans to host members of the community for Shabbat meals in our home, our hope to have young families come for Shabbat to experience the magic of the community, the upcoming Jewish High Holidays and our desire to create a dynamic youth program that would been children and teens from all over the community to our synagogue to rejoice in prayers and appreciate the Torah and its lessons. Fast-forward to my first day “on the job” on June 1 and the synagogue was still closed out of an abundance of caution due to the pandemic.
It forced us to be creative and think outside of the box; we came up with the idea to deliver home-baked challah bread and cookies to each congregant’s home. Wearing our masks and standing six feet apart at all times, we stood on people’s lawns to share a taste of Shabbat since we couldn’t share meals yet. We talked about how their family was faring during the pandemic and anything that we, or the broader synagogue family, could help them with.
When houses of worship received the green light to re-open a few weeks later, we gathered for prayers but consciously decided not to host the weekly Kiddush — the blessing over a cup of wine or grape juice to sanctify the Shabbat which is usually followed by a lunch spread of traditional cholent, potato kugel, baked goods and more. However, for many in the community, this weekly fest provides an important opportunity to mingle and interact with fellow community members. Pre-COVID-19, some would stay more than an hour to chat with friends. While are still not hosting these gatherings, we wanted to come up with an innovative solution to the Kiddush itself, and so we created “Kiddush to go,” in which each congregant on their way home from the Shabbat morning service picks up an individually wrapped portion size container of food along with a bottle of grape juice. It allows me the opportunity to stand at the door when people were leaving and to personally greet them.
While synagogues like ours have now started to re-open, albeit in smaller services and while practicing COVID-19 recommended guidelines such as wearing masks and standing six feet apart, there are many elderly members of the community who are not yet comfortable returning. It is important that they feel part of the community because our synagogues are much more than just the physical structure where we go to pray, they are a place where we find community. Therefore, my wife and I call the elderly in our community once a week to check in on them.
Taking over as the rabbi of a synagogue in the middle of this pandemic has provided both a challenge and an opportunity —it has forced us to be creative and develop ways to remind the community that while we are physically distant as we practice social distancing guidelines, we must find ways — such as the ones above — to be “socially together.” Certainly, this was not how I envisioned the beginning of my pulpit, but it has taught me an incredible lesson — one of resilience.
Rabbi Benny Berlin is one of the Jewish modern Orthodox world’s most dynamic young spiritual leaders. He is the rabbi of BACH Jewish Center located in Long Beach, New York.