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Our Year with Covid-19

Thursday, March 18, 2021/ 5 Nisan, 5781

Our Year with Covid 19

Last year we gathered for the reading of Megilat Esther with the storm clouds of the Corona Virus pandemic approaching.  We had a nice crowd for the reading, many in costume, with an outwardly festive mood.  I could see the worry on people’s faces, but we did not talk about it.  As the service concluded I wondered to myself when I would next gather in-person with folks for a synagogue event.

As the year progressed, I was in touch with a dozen or so households in which family members contracted Covid-19.  Some of them got extremely sick. For others, the symptoms were mild. As far as I know, no one in our congregation died from the virus. The secondary impacts of the virus were more evident. I spoke to many more congregants who spoke of depression or loneliness. I spoke to parents exhausted and severely beleaguered by the impact of the pandemic on their families.

As we moved to online services, classes, and programs I saw an uptick in participation. I realized that for some people the online programs offered real and meaningful community while we remained confined to our homes. This community creating purpose inspire me as I conducted services and offered classes throughout the year. 

On the other hand, I also noticed that other members, who had been frequent in-person attendees at shul, dropped out of sight for a variety of reasons. For some it was the difficulty of adapting to the new technology. For others it was Zoom fatigue from the new virtual reality that governed work or school. For still others, the loss of in-person gathering led to an intentional privatizing of religious life in which Shabbatot and Yom Tovim became times for personal mediation and study.

The religious school was profoundly impacted by the pandemic with all in-person activities grinding to a halt. While the school was quick to adapt to online services, it has had to reduce class hours substantially. Teachers, unaccustomed to using online platforms, had to rush to learn the skills of teaching online. Only recently have we been able to offer the option of in-person gathering for informal family programs outside. 

This past year has been an unprecedented existential detour which reorganized the reality of congregational life for every one. It forced every one of us to adapt and to change our routines. Yesterday, I was interviewed for a study by two sociologists about how rabbis of congregations across the country adapted to the pandemic. As the interview progressed, I realized how much I had to adapt to help the congregation through this extraordinarily disruptive period. But many of the adaptations have led to surprising discoveries that I believe have benefitted the congregation.  I’ll summarize some of the things I learned that I shared with the researchers.  

The value of live interpersonal interaction at virtual religious services and classes gatherings. 

I realized a month or two into the pandemic that we had to find a way to make our online gatherings more interactive. I quickly moved away from focusing on livestreaming our events where people watched a service or a presentation passively.  I shifted the focus to more interactive formats where congregants could engage with each other instead of being passive listeners. We focused on Zoom as a platform that offered more interactivity. We introduced breakout rooms, not letting any service go longer than an hour without at least 5 minutes of being together in smaller breakout rooms. In this way people got to know each other and were able to check in with each other. 

Welcoming participation of people out of the area.

When we moved to online services and programs, we discovered that new people began to participate who did not live in the ABQ area. People from all over the state and beyond the state started participating in services or signing up for classes. We even discovered people from other communities who were eager to lead us in prayer. For example, Yehudah and Nurit Patt from Santa Fe started participating online several months before the High Holidays and have contributed substantially to our online services during this year.

Another key adaptation from this year is the realization that we needed to think of our programs as regional opportunities, not just local ABQ offerings. The Miller Introduction to Judaism Program has several participants who join this online class who could not otherwise participate if it was only an in-person class. We have participants attending from Rio Rancho, Placitas, Belen, and even Philadelphia,

Experiencing Jewish life and Jewish talent beyond Albuquerque.

The implementation of online programming at CBI had another consequence. People discovered that they could explore Jewish life outside of ABQ. Members are attending services at other congregations, taking classes online at other Jewish institutions. People discovered that Zoom led to a reality of expanded choices that allowed attending services with relatives elsewhere or reconnecting with former communities whose services were now accessible online. At CBI we were able to bring remote talent to continue musical services and to hold classes. 

Collaborations with other Jewish communities

More recently, we have discovered that online programming enables us to collaborate with other communities. I am discussing with a Conservative congregation in Colorado about holding joint online Yom Tov services for Passover. By combining forces, we can ensure a minyan, connect Conservative Jews from different communities, and enable rabbis to collaborate and enrich our communities together. Another idea circulating is for Conservative congregations in New Mexico, and Colorado to collaborate by offering an online daily minyan that increases the pool of participation and the frequency of meetings. 

The End of the Pandemic

We are now beginning to contemplate the end of the pandemic and the return to in-person activities. This transition will be gradual and will also bring unexpected challenges. How will the changes I mentioned above figure in our congregation’s future?  How will our congregational life change?  The next 6 months will be fascinating and revelatory.  Send me your thoughts and ideas on how we should transition back to in-person gatherings. What will be the role of online programming in the future? What is our responsibility to our many participants who live far outside Albuquerque?   

Shalom, Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

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