Bewildering Shabbat in Squirrel Hill
CoronavirusDay of Rest

Bewildering Shabbat in Squirrel Hill

Congregations shutter with members experiencing disconcerting thoughts in light of COVID-19.

At Congregation Beth Shalom, prepackaged kiddush was served to congregants for their enjoyment to go. 

Photo courtesy of Tammy Hepps
At Congregation Beth Shalom, prepackaged kiddush was served to congregants for their enjoyment to go. Photo courtesy of Tammy Hepps

The day of rest took on new meaning as Squirrel Hill synagogue-goers experienced a Shabbat completely out of the ordinary. With some buildings shuttered and others open but reduced to limited offerings because of COVID-19 concerns, last weekend’s day of worship found many in Pittsburgh’s historic Jewish neighborhood bewildered.

Rabbi Elisar Admon regularly attends Congregation Poale Zedeck. The Orthodox institution has operated on the corner of Philips and Shady avenues for more than 90 years, reliably offering multiple daily services. But on Friday evening, March 13, approximately 90 minutes before the beginning of Shabbat, Rabbi Daniel Yolkut emailed members of the congregation saying, “due to the statewide ban on schools for the next ten business days, we will be closing the shul for the period for all davening and other activities.”

Admon decided to venture elsewhere. On Friday evening he attended services at Young Israel of Pittsburgh and the following day he joined the minyan at the Kollel Jewish Learning Center.

Both venues “have seating that is far away” and enabled social distancing, and at neither service did Admon shake hands or “talk to people at all,” he said.

The absence of fraternization in some ways enhanced the meaning he was able to take from prayer.

By focusing solely on the texts, “this was a time to strengthen myself, and I went to minyan and I felt a greater connection,” he said. “It’s a tough situation when we close shuls, but this is what the halacha (Jewish law) wants us to do,” to pray and “not feel lonely.”

Leslie Itskowitz also regularly attends Poale Zedeck. When she heard of the synagogue’s Shabbat closure, Itskowitz phoned her sister, also a Squirrel Hill resident.

Itskowitz decided to spend Friday evening with her sister and brother-in-law, and Saturday with other family members, because “it’s important to be with loved ones,” she said.

Still, Itskowitz “missed being in shul,” she said. “I missed the camaraderie. I missed the davening, but I understand that’s what we’re facing for the next few weeks.”

Exterior of Congregation Beth Shalom. Photo courtesy of Beth Shalom

Congregation Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue located on the corner of Beacon Street and Shady Avenue has offered regular services for nearly a century. But following havdalah on March 14, the building closed.

Rabbi Seth Adelson, and leaders of Beth Shalom shared the news in a March 13 message to congregants: “It is with the pain of many broken hearts with which we send this communication, not due to physical sickness per se, but because the synagogue is our communal center; it is our Beit Kenesset, place of gathering, that enables and enhances our community by bringing us together to celebrate, to grieve, and to access the Divine together.”

Prior to Saturday evening’s closure, services were held both on Friday night and Saturday at Beth Shalom. Ira Frank, who attends multiple services at the synagogue, described a precautionary atmosphere.

Before Shabbat, “we were telling people if they felt uncomfortable not to come,” and during both Saturday morning’s early minyan and 9:30 a.m. services “we told people to stay away from each other and not to shake hands,” said Frank.

Each week, following 9:30 a.m. services, Beth Shalom holds a kiddush. The gathering provides attendees a chance to mingle, eat and enjoy refreshments.

Last week, “instead of kiddush in the ballroom, we had boxed lunches that were given out,” said Frank.

The prepackaged, “to-go” food was just one of several disorienting aspects of Shabbat for Tammy Hepps, a regular Beth Shalom attendee.

“At every moment it was like things in the service were altered: They didn’t parade around the Torah, people were asked not to sit near each other,” said Hepps.

By design shaleshudes (a third meal customarily eaten by Jews on Saturday afternoon), is a mournful period, as “we’re sad that Shabbat is leaving.” Last weekend pushed the trope, Hepps said.

“We were all saying goodbye to each other and not knowing for how long. Every moment was like acknowledging that we don’t know when the next time we will be together again having Shabbat.”

Between the changes in the services, and the uncertainty of what’s to come, there was an almost “funereal” sense, continued Hepps. “It’s not like we’re all going to reunite in three months and think we’re all going to be great. It’s impossible to think that people we love aren’t going to be affected by this.”

With the virus’ migration, familiar life will continue to be disrupted. Last Shabbat in Squirrel Hill may be an example of what is to come.

“For someone like me, community is my stability,” said Hepps. “I count on Shabbat every week as a time to see friends, chat and hang out after shul for hours. I know that Shabbat begins and ends at a certain time, but to think that it’s not a part of my week, to be in community with other people, feels destabilizing at a time when everything feels very unstable.”

“In retrospect, did we ever appreciate the camaraderie and the socialization of being with each other, with like-minded people,” said Itskowitz. “God willing, when this is over, and we’re past the pandemic, I will have a heightened appreciation for our shul and our Jewish community.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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