Jewish Ritual Life in Philly Adapts to Coronavirus

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Drexel student picks up his Shabbat to-go package from Chabad house.
A Drexel student picks up his Shabbat to-go package from Chabad house. (Photo Courtesy of Chabad Serving Drexel University)

In crisis, one natural question is, “Where is God?”

When, as with the present global pandemic, public gatherings are off-limits, we’re ordered to stay at home and most of the places routine would take us are closed anyway, that question begets another that’s even more disorienting: Where is God when synagogue is closed?

With government-imposed quarantine prescribing distance, rabbis and Jewish community leaders are reporting that demand for spiritual connection, for connection to Judaism, is high. Many are also saying that while the most obvious place to commune with God might be synagogue, entry points to the Divine, to Godliness, abound outside your local temple’s walls.

“What these circumstances will reveal is that people are open to a variety of spiritual experiences,” said Rabbi Shai Cherry of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park. “There’s a whole big swath that experiences Judaism outside of the synagogue. The issue is going to be for those who traditionally don’t.”

That’s where Cherry comes in.

“The role of the rabbi is to promote the idea that Judaism and God exist beyond a stationary building,” he said. “This is an opportunity for me as a rabbi to motivate people to tap into another aspect of their spirituality.”

Rabbi Eli Freedman of Congregation Rodeph Shalom feels similarly, though he recognizes the inherent challenges in taking services out of Rodeph’s awe-inspiring sanctuary.

“It’s an incredibly beautiful sanctuary, and I know a lot of people find their spirituality in that space,” he said. “But since the destruction of the Second Temple, rabbis have really promoted the centrality of Jewish time over Jewish space. That’s the beautiful thing about Shabbat and our Jewish calendar — you can take Shabbat anywhere with you.”

Like most other synagogues in the area, Rodeph Shalom and AJ have transitioned religious and educational programming online to the greatest extent practicable.

Cherry and AJ have conducted services and programs exclusively via livestream since Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all non-life-sustaining businesses closed on March 19. Cherry admitted a steeper-than-expected initial learning curve with Zoom, one of the handful of videoconferencing platforms that have contributed to sustaining socialization and to the ever-growing coronavirus lexicon.

“There were some initial glitches, but we’ve got the hang of it now — we’re Zooming every day, morning and afternoon,” said Cherry, who’s looking forward to rolling out an introduction to Judaism course for adults on the platform beginning March 24. The course will require students to watch the 24 half-hour lectures Cherry delivered back in 2004 for The Great Courses series. Then, each Tuesday and Thursday evening, Cherry will join the class to discuss a specific lecture. The course will last 12 weeks; Cherry hopes that’ll be enough content to see his congregants through to the end of the present circumstances.

“That’s the hope,” he said. “What we’re really trying to do here is give people different access points to the synagogue community.”

If there’s a unifying theme, it’s that both clergy and lay leaders are using suboptimal circumstances to encourage Jews to step out of their comfort zones and consume Judaism in ways they’re not used to.

“Those that weren’t necessarily the most tech-savvy are very quickly picking it up,” Freedman said. “That’s definitely one of the silver linings here; a lot of folks are becoming a lot better at technology.

This applies to clergy, too.

“I have never been comfortable with technology, and I fight the Facebook stuff, but last week, using our Facebook page, we livestreamed Shabbat for the first time ever,” said Rabbi Howard Cove of Beiteinu Synagogue, the “synagogue without walls.”

Beiteinu’s inaugural livestream had about 30 people tune in in real time. But over the course of the week, the Cove-led Shabbat service was viewed more than 1,300 times, leading the one-time Luddite to acknowledge the power of the web but also the distinct demand for connection and purpose.

Cove will be broadcasting Shabbat services live via Facebook, he said, for as long as the quarantine and stay-at-home decrees prevent worship as usual.

“Spiritually, one of the ways that we can deal with this crisis is to expand our own abilities, our own experiences,” he said. “It’s expanding my comfort with technology … to communicate.”

Shabbat to-go bags prepared for students by Drexel Chabad
Shabbat to-go bags prepared for students by Drexel Chabad (Photo Courtesy of Chabad Serving Drexel University)

The desire to keep lines of communication open is what drove Moussia Goldstein, co-director of Drexel University’s Chabad, to pack dozens of Shabbat to-go boxes last week. Complete with soup, chicken, sides and “special insights to make the meal more meaningful,” the boxes were for students who remained on campus even though the remainder of the academic year has gone virtual.

“The more we started hearing that people were in town, we realized that even though students couldn’t come here for Shabbat, this was a way for all of us to have Shabbat together,” Goldstein said. “It’s an important time for students to know we’re still here for them. They’re feeling that loss of physical community, but the more we’re online — and the more we do things like Shabbat to-go — the more connected everybody is.”

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