Community adapts Jewish rituals during coronavirus crisis

Community adapts Jewish rituals during coronavirus crisis

New needs require the Jewish world to find new techniques

Congregation Beth Shalom has been holding daily minyans via Zoom. 
Photo by Jim Busis
Congregation Beth Shalom has been holding daily minyans via Zoom. Photo by Jim Busis

David Dinkin was a pillar of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.

Dinkin moved to the city after a stint in the army during World War II and found his true calling first as the executive director of Tree of Life Congregation and later as both an acting rabbi for the congregation and principal of its religious school.

“He was obsessed with education,” remembered his son Elliot. “He did everything he could to give people an opportunity to learn.”

That love of education followed Dinkin when he moved from the Tree of Life to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

“He was involved with everything from accounting to education and was a teacher there as well,” his son recalled. “Even when he stopped doing that, he would go around to all these different organizations — Weinberg Terrace to Charles Morris to Riverview and Schenley Gardens — to give talks about current events, Jewish education, Jewish topics, holidays, stuff in Israel.”

The elder Dinkin loved his community and found value in all the people he met.

“He didn’t care if you had $1 or $100 million, he treated everyone the same. He treated everyone with the same respect and genuine interest,” according to his son.

David Dinkin died March 14, but there was no large funeral or memorial service for the stalwart community member. And Dinkin’s family has not had a steady stream of visitors paying shiva calls. Elliot Dinkin has been unable to share stories about his dad with friends before or after a minyan.

The Dinkin family is in the midst of a period of self-distancing due to COVID-19, and like the rest of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, has been forced to confront a new normal disrupting many Jewish rituals and practices.

Funerals, shivas, brit milot, minyans and b’nei mitzvahs are staples of Jewish life and all have been impacted by the novel coronavirus in some way.

“We are following all of the mandates and protocols of the Centers for Disease Control,” explained Sharon Ryave Brody, owner and president of the Ralph Schugar Chapel. “There are no funerals inside the chapel.”

Instead of the type of large memorial service that is normally held for many community members, Ralph Schugar is now only offering small, graveside services with a maximum of 10 people.

“We take the public health and safety, and our own, really seriously,” Brody explained. “We’re upholding all the mandates that come out.”

Protecting health and safety are fundamental principles of Judaism.

“We understand that we have to modify some of our behaviors to serve the greater goal of pikuach nefesh, of saving a life,” explained Rabbi Seth Adelson of Congregation Beth Shalom.

Like most congregations in the area, Beth Shalom has moved all of its services and programs online. The one exception, according to Adelson, is a b’nei mitzvah, like the one the congregation was scheduled to celebrate last weekend. The rabbi and family planned to be in the synagogue’s sanctuary with no one else in attendance. Guests could view the service online.
Families also have been forced to alter their plans for b’nei mitzvah celebrations and in some cases, have found unique ways to mark the life cycle event.

Amy Zahalsky’s daughter Abigail is becoming a bat mitzvah on March 28. As the family was preparing for the event several weeks ago, Amy and her husband Andrew, who is a doctor, began discussing the possibility that a live service attended by friends and families wouldn’t be possible.

Rabbi Aaron Meyer assists with new technology added to the bat mitzvah of Abigail Zahalsky. Photo by Amy Zahalsky.

“My first step was emailing out of town guests, asking if they would like to amend their RSVPs,” Zahalsky recalled.

“That was probably three weeks ago. About a week after that we saw how devastating this whole situation could be and we wrote our guests to tell them we were officially cancel-ling and to look for a link in your email to watch in the comfort of your own home.”

For the Zahalsky family the challenges didn’t end with the guests.

Abigail’s grandmother, Cantor Rena Shapiro, was slated to participate in the service, but she is in the age group most susceptible to the virus. A last-minute decision was made to allow Shapiro to record her portion of the ceremony. Zahalsky credits Temple Emanuel of South Hills’ Rabbi Aaron Meyer for working with the family.

“Rabbi Aaron has been so flexible, helpful and filled with good humor as we try to figure this out,” she said.

The ceremony, however, is only one part of the bat mitzvah. The Zahalskys had planned a dinner with family following the event and are currently “negotiating with the restaurant about our contract.”

The deposit paid to a photographer is being transferred to Abigail’s brother’s bar mitzvah in 2022.
Of course, not everything is so easy to change.

“I do have a lot of yarmulkes and party favors if anyone needs one,” Zahalsky laughed.

For liberal congregations, although changing the way a bar or bat mitzvah or a minyan takes place may require ingenuity and forethought, it also presents opportunities.

“We would typically have 10 or 15 people for evening service and 15 for morning service,” explained Beth Shalom’s interim executive director Ken Turkewitz. But once it was no longer advisable to have more than 10 people in a room, Turkewitz decided to conduct a minyan using the popular Zoom video conferencing program.

Now, he said, “Every one of our services over the last few days has had more than 20 people.”

For Turkewitz, streaming services and events over the internet has provided a welcome and unintended consequence: the ability for non-members across the city and country to sample Beth Shalom’s offerings.

“I’ve seen a few people log on just to check it out,” he said. “A friend of mine from Massachusetts with a connection to the community was able to see what our services are like.”

Halachic constraints have made it harder on the Orthodox community to daven online: a minyan is only valid if its members are together in person, and they cannot livestream Shabbat services because of the prohibition against the use of electronics on Shabbat.

Last week, Shaare Torah Congregation in Squirrel Hill announced that for the time being it would continue with daily services but would allow no more that 10 men to participate.

Congregation Poale Zedeck made the difficult decision to close the synagogue building, citing the need to slow the spread of the virus.

“It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you…we will be closing the shul for the period for all davening and other activities,” Rabbi Daniel Yolkut wrote in an email to members.

“The time has come,” his message continued, “to focus on social distancing in the hopes of flattening the curve of the epidemic and step back from public tefillah and learning. I am particularly sad for those saying kaddish but firmly believe that our efforts for individual and communal health will provide that spiritual benefit for the departed.”

The coronavirus outbreak has impacted all aspects of Jewish ritual, from birth to death, forcing families to reconsider how to celebrate the first ritual of Jewish life for males, the brit milah.

“We are asking families to have a very small number of people attend,” said mohel Rabbi Elisar Admon, “even telling them they don’t have to have a minyan.”

Admon explained that there are medical concerns to consider: “You don’t want the baby exposed to the coronavirus, especially while he has an open wound.”

COVID-19 has forced the Jewish community to find new ways to connect and adapt, according to Rabbi Aaron Bisno, Rodef Shalom Congregation’s senior rabbi.

“This situation requires us, or at least challenges us, to understand what it means to be present and available to one another. It requires us to stretch.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at

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