Pandemic Doesn’t Stop Family Reunions

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Cheryl Friedenberg (highlighted in yellow) has held Zoom calls with her mother (top left) and siblings (top middle, top right and middle right) five nights per week since the pandemic began. Photo by Cheryl Friedenberg

They came from Russia and the state of Georgia, New York and Israel. From France and New Jersey they arrived, ready to gab. And in Northeast Philadelphia, Jeanne Kolodner got to see all 100 or so of their faces: the extended Aronow/Patkin family, spread across the world, together again for a reunion.

This time, though, it was via Zoom.

Kolodner’s family typically hosts an in-person reunion every four years, gathering near the ancestral homeland of Camden, New Jersey, for feasts, music and commemorative ceremonies. The 2012 reunion was able to proceed in spite of the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy, and the 2016 iteration went well, too.


But 2020 was deemed too risky for an in-person reunion so, rather than wait for a safe time to meet in person again, the family decided to create a Zoom reunion, complete with breakout rooms for specific ages and interests, a slideshow memorializing lost family members, two sign language interpreters and a party DJ to keep things moving.

A screenshot from a slideshow displayed during the Aronow and Patkin family reunion shows some Philadelphia ancestors. Courtesy of Kerith Aronow

It was hard to replicate the feeling of an in-person reunion, and to have a conversation with just one person was impossible. But for Kolodner, the chance to hold some version of the reunion was well worth the headaches.

“Altogether, it came out very good, I think,” she said.

Kolodner’s family is hardly the only one to make use of Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms in the last year for a family reunion. Though family reunions aren’t typically perceived as particularly “Jewish” — that’s what Passover and the High Holidays are for — many have taken the isolation of the pandemic as a chance to connect, or reconnect.
Some reunions, like Kolodner’s, are new twists on old traditions, but other families, like that of Chani Baram, took the chance to start new ones.

Baram, who lives with her family in South Philadelphia, said that her extended family hadn’t gotten together since the early ’80s, when earlier generations remained in a tight circle. Since then, as branches grew and new ones were added, such reunions became a distant memory. For a long time, the idea of another reunion wasn’t just geographically impractical, but emotionally fraught.

“People don’t feel as connected to each other,” Baram said. “That’s the truth.”
After the pandemic began, a couple of cousins decided to try and make something of everyone’s newfound downtime and computer literacy, collecting emails and gauging interest for a Zoom-based reunion. In the end, more than 200 people convened in several different time slots on a Sunday in December.

Though such conditions precluded intimate conversation — there was the size of the group, plus the fact that many were distant strangers to Baram and her family — Baram was pleased the event was organized. Only in the pandemic, she believes, would it have ever happened.

“It was really cool,” Baram said.

Betty-Ann Izenman of Wynnewood hasn’t been able to bring her family together for a reunion in more than a decade. That’ll happen when your family, once concentrated in Canada, is now spread between Australia, England, the U.S. and the Great White North.

And yet, in 2019, a reunion was planned, with a city (Boston) and a date (April 2020), ready to rock and roll. That original date became an early casualty of the pandemic, and so, too, did a hopefully conceived fall 2020 makeup. “And then it got canceled entirely,” Izenman recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous. Why don’t we just get together on Zoom?’”

That’s exactly what Izenman and 16 family member did last summer, with the Australians rising early, the Brits staying up late and the North American contingent enjoying a daytime Zoom.

Though Izenman admitted that any Zoom call with more than eight or so participants gets dicey for conversation, she saw the reunion itself as a special time for her family.
“It is the one silver lining to the pandemic,” she said, “that people are getting so much more comfortable with technology, and remembering and thinking about getting together with faraway family.”

Cheryl Friedenberg and her mother, Naomi Block Rafaeli, don’t live too far from one another; Friedenberg is in Blue Bell, and Block Rafaeli is at Rydal Park, a senior living community in Jenkintown. But Friedenberg’s three other siblings, Toby, Gary and Deena, are spread across the country, and the onset of the pandemic made it clear that they wouldn’t be seeing each other any time soon, to say nothing of their mother.

That first week, Friedenberg and her siblings organized a Zoom call with their mother and her husband Peter Rafaeli.

“We thought it was a great way to connect with one another, and obviously, give something for my mom to do every day,” Friedenberg said.

That first night was a simple chat. Since then, the family has hopped on nightly Zoom calls five times per week. Each of the siblings bring in surprise guests from childhood or other long-lost social circles as frequently as they can. One guest, the daughter of Block Rafaeli’s deceased friend, was a special treat.

They’ve played trivia games based on their lives together, talked about politics and then decided to no longer talk about politics — “it got a little out of hand,” Block Rafaeli said. They’ve brought their children onto the call, some of them college students who tell the rest of their family about their unique pandemic experiences. It’s been the site of holidays and birthdays.

Friedenberg and Block Rafaeli both said that they would have never gotten to know the rest of their family as well as they do now if not for their nightly Zoom calls.

“You get to know a little bit more about the people that you grew up with, which is really special to me,” Friedenberg said.

jbernstein@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740

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