Local synagogues rush to provide virtual connection

Local synagogues are using one of their most powerful weapons against the coronavirus and the isolation it causes: Connection. The key, of course, is to stay connected while at home.

Congregation Sinai, Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah, Congregation Shalom and other synagogues have had board members, rabbis, volunteers or others calling all congregants.

“We’re calling every congregant to see how they’re doing and identify their needs,” said Rabbi Noah Chertkoff of Congregation Shalom. The rabbis, cantor, executive director and director of synagogue relations were making their calls.

Through the calls, surveys and other contacts, Chertkoff said he’s learned “people are resilient, and they seem to be somewhat OK. It’s the long-term that people are concerned about.”

Congregation Shalom held a Facebook live event for kids in late March, with Rabbi Rachel Kaplan Marks leading the “Shabbat Shalom” song.

National media reports have indicated the coronavirus pandemic may not be resolved quickly or easily, and it could have a significant impact on healthcare and the economy.

“It’s heartening the degree to which people want to be helpers. Every single person would like to help in some way,” Chertkoff said.

Like some other synagogues, Congregation Shalom in Fox Point is offering virtual experiences. Wisconsin synagogues shut down most in-person experiences in mid-March. Buildings were generally closed to the public.

Congregation Shalom’s website, newly updated for the coronavirus era, offers a list of Facebook, Zoom and streaming experiences. Other synagogues, too, are virtually bursting with online offerings.

“We are doing services, we are doing classes. We pretty much have our regular schedule except it’s all virtual,” said Rabbi Michal Woll of Congregation Shir Hadash.

For example, the Shir Hadash congregation’s Saturday morning “Song and Study” usually happens in the rabbi’s living room, with coffee and nosh; now, it will be virtual.

But you can’t deny there’s a loss. “One of the reasons I do what I do is I want to have contact with people, but that’s where we’re at,” said Rabbi Marc Berkson of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. His synagogue is ramping up virtual experiences and working to make them robust.

Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun is creating experiences for religious students on Sundays and Wednesday afternoons. The idea is that keeping the timing of in-person religious school will help parents provide structure.

Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid’s Hazzan Jeremy Stein has been putting on nightly miniconcerts on Facebook Live, “to connect with people and create virtual musical communities in this time of isolation,” he said.

At ASKT, a morning Talmud class is now by phone and other events are by Zoom, the online videoconference service. “It opens up a whole new paradigm, whole new opportunities for how we’re going to reach people,” Rabbi Wes Kalmar said.

“In all the messages that I’ve sent out, I’ve mentioned that what is going to get us all through this is being united and being together,” Chertkoff said. “Even if we can’t be physically present, we can be spiritually together.”