At the Chronicle’s first editorial meeting after the country began to shut down in March 2020, one of the many things discussed was the fate of our weekly community calendar. How would we fill that page with lists of events when everything was canceled? And, if everything was canceled, what would replace those stories that featured previews or recaps of our Jewish organizations’ and congregations’ programs?
Within days, it was clear that we needn’t have worried. It took no time at all for Jewish Pittsburgh to pivot, finding ways to create engaging programming through unconventional means, like Zoom, which, weirdly, have now become conventional.
Adult education classes went online. Guest speakers appeared online. Even annual galas went online. The Chronicle’s pages covering Jewish Pittsburgh have been filled.
One word that can accurately describe Jewish Pittsburghers is “resilient.” But the truth is, life this past year has been really hard for most of us. The losses felt by too many of us have been deep, heartbreaking, tragic.
With the distribution of vaccines now well underway, a flicker of light has emerged at the end of this seemingly endless tunnel. We are optimistic that our community, our world, will soon see much better days.
We reached out to several community members to reflect on the past year and to share their hopes for the future. Their thoughts appear below.
The benefits of being grounded
During each of the past 20-plus years, I have spent more than 100 days traveling the world. It’s a lifestyle I love, and luckily I married a wonderful man who supports my desire to explore. Bringing travelers to exotic destinations, experiencing cultures different than our own and delving into Jewish communities past and present is my driving force. It gives me great pleasure to open the eyes and the hearts of my travelers, bringing them to a world beyond their own. When I’m not leading trips to far away locales, I spend the majority of my day creatively trip-planning.
And then COVID hit. Day after day, week after week, month by month … here I sit, waiting for the world to safely welcome me and my travelers once more. It’s not easy — the world is my office. Whether traversing the granite mountains in Patagonia, snorkeling around the Galapagos Islands or looking for wildlife in the savannah of Africa, I am very much at home outside my home. And now I am homebound.
Staying in one place means finding ways to better myself and my community. I have taken many online classes, have arranged “tours” on Zoom for clients, Shabbat Zooms with family and happy hour Zooms with cousins, high school friends and sorority sisters. I have organized a neighborhood coat drive, volunteered at 412 Food Rescue and established a monthly food drive at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. I took on a leadership role for the presidential election and Georgia Senate races, all while waiting this out. In addition, I make sure to exercise two to three times a day to stay in shape for the time when I am traveling once more, and to keep myself healthy.
There’s another positive side to all of this: I am grateful for the days I have been able to spend with my local family — my husband, my two daughters and their husbands, and my four grandkids. We have mostly “bubbled” together during all of this and have enjoyed lots and lots of family time. It’s a rare treat for me and one that I have cherished, being home for Shabbat dinners, birthday celebrations, a New Year’s Eve party and backyard barbeques.
Malori Asman is the owner of Amazing Journeys, which specializes in Jewish group travel.
Pittsburghers have stepped up
COVID-19 has affected every aspect of all of our lives. It has taken far too many lives and changed the way we engage with our families, friends and communities. This pandemic has been difficult for us on all levels — personal, professional and municipal. It has shined a light on the inequities that we have always known were there and have been working to address, but are now exacerbated by this crisis.
Yet this crisis has allowed a chance for reflection. We have had the opportunity to look at our systems and ensure that they are benefitting everyone and truly serving the needs of our most critical communities. Isolation from extended family, work and support systems is challenging enough without having to worry whether you’ll be able to feed your family, if you’ll still have a job, if you’ll be able to make your rent or mortgage payment, if you’ll have the ability to take time off or have insurance if you or someone you love gets sick. The City of Pittsburgh and Mayor’s Office has worked to address all of these needs and more to ensure a safe, effective and equitable response to the pandemic for all. Because, although these times are so trying for us all, our actions now reveal the values of our city.
Pittsburgh has showed us that neighborliness and friendship are critically important right now. Pittsburghers have stepped up, once again, to help each other. I’m not surprised, but incredibly proud. We have more work to do, but our response will be focused on building back by continuing to help each other, support our critical communities, prioritize equity and protect our neighbors, because it’s the right thing to do.
Dan Gilman is chief of staff in the Office of Mayor William Peduto.
What we’ve gained from COVID-19
Last year, the world lost a myriad of things: weddings, bat/bar mitzvahs, family members, field trips, vacations and more. All gone. But it’s also important to talk about the things we’ve gained from COVID — the life lessons, experiences and skills we all have now.
COVID came at us when we least expected it. We were going to school/work, hanging out with friends and going shopping without a mask. Then, suddenly, masks became a trend and Zoom became popular. The teachers who had taught their whole careers in person had to learn how to adapt to the new guidelines. Instead of playing sports and hosting birthday parties, students spent their whole day at home … for months.
The thing is we did this. We adapted. Now pretty much everyone can start a Zoom meeting and learn geometry from their bedrooms. People have learned to not take simple things for granted anymore. We have learned that keeping close to our friends and family is more important than ever. We have learned that in the most devastating times, we can get through it.
Throughout everything, we have found ways to get by under even the most grueling circumstances. We have even found a way to make something beautiful out of something terrible. COVID may have taken away things we will never get back, but it has also given us things we will never lose.
Mollie Kaplan is a seventh-grader at Community Day School.
Spiritual leadership during the time of COVID-19
Rabbi Cheryl Klein
Esa eynai el heharim, me’ayin yavo ezri: “My eyes ascend to the mountains and I ask, ‘From where will my help come?’”
Singing the 121st psalm during the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on new meaning as most congregations continue to gather using a virtual platform. Judaism beckons us to seek refuge in times of trouble in both the embrace of HaShem and of our fellow human beings.
The needs of our Dor Hadash congregants run deep: those who are health compromised; those who struggle with unemployment and its financial burdens; those who continue to deal with PTSD from the massacre of Oct. 27, 2018; those who live alone and are lonely; those who are coping with the dynamics of family life where time together is 24/7. Others have been emotionally impacted by the death of loved ones and the absence of the physical embrace of family and friends to console them at funerals and shiva.
Lifting the spirits of people through song on Shabbat is a truly bonding experience, where, for just a couple of hours in the week, the cares of the world can recede allowing the heart and mind to take in a breath of pure gladness. Reciting the names of those in need of healing through the Mi Sheberach prayer, reminds us just how blessed we are when we have our health.
Jews have a long history of dealing with adversity and we have been quite resourceful in developing coping skills and plans of action to move forward. When we commit ourselves to the Jewish values that command us to cultivate community by acting on behalf of its needs, to take measures to safeguard life (pikuach nefesh), to raise awareness of human rights and workers’ rights, to seek justice for marginalized populations, we then become vessels of spiritual goodness who profess hope.
Rabbi Cheryl J. Klein serves Congregation Dor Hadash.
Rabbi Mordy Rudolph
How does one make sense of this year? There are two ways to look at it, the personal and the professional — which, in my case, is the communal.
Personally, there were certainly difficult days, days when we hoped that people we cared about would be healthy, and days when we hoped we would get by with our kids home and in online school (sometimes) while entertaining our preschool age daughters and managing The Friendship Circle.
There was so much to be grateful for. Our school stayed open (fortunately) and we learned a lot about ourselves — and even the quietest nooks for Zoom calls. Exercise took on new meaning; it centered days that would otherwise have felt like an endless loop.
Then we have the professional side. On day one of the shutdown, we huddled together as a staff and discussed how our mission at The Friendship Circle was as critical as ever. We pride ourselves in connecting those who would not otherwise be connected, and so this was just an additional challenge to that mission. We committed ourselves as a team to carry out that mission to the best of our abilities, whether through virtual events, or drive-through activities and drive-in movies. We were going to need to constantly adapt to ensure that our members remain connected throughout this craziness.
Our staff continues to amaze with their creativity, commitment and spunk; I know we’re not the only ones in the community to be blessed by the energy of so many wonderful young folks, but it is something we should all be grateful for.
If we are hoping that 2022 looks like 2019, we are missing out on much of what is to be gleaned from the past year. We had planned on involving ourselves in the world of mental and behavioral health, and the pandemic has heightened the urgency for serious commitment.
As my dad likes to say about the difference between the chicken and pig when it comes to bacon and eggs (I know, this isn’t super rabbinic): The chicken is involved, the pig is committed.
Coming out of the pandemic, we are committed. We all can connect with others best when we are our own best selves. The past year has tested us all, but we nonetheless look forward to being better people, not despite the pandemic, but because of it.
Rabbi Mordy Rudolph is the executive director of the Friendship Circle.
The stresses of beginning a rabbinate during COVID
Rabbi Howie Stein
When I interviewed for my position as rabbi at Temple B’nai Israel in November 2019, I had the opportunity to meet many congregants. I met with the search committee, I circulated among the tables at Shabbat kiddush, and I then met with congregational leaders to finalize my contract. None of us could imagine that when I started my position last June, virtually all contact would be through a screen. There have been opportunities for innovation, though, as we have blended longstanding traditions and the deep desire for human contact with the distanced reality of the pandemic and the use of technology that was new to many of our congregants.
The aspect of our current situation that has affected me the most is being unable to visit congregants who are homebound or ill. While most congregational activities have shifted to Zoom smoothly, those who do not have access to the technology are left out, and it is those congregants I miss the most (despite not knowing them). Similarly, I have seen the real pain of grieving families (and have experienced this personally), not being able to host in-person shiva gatherings to mourn their loved ones and be comforted by the presence of family and friends. It is a real challenge to me to maintain a pastoral presence when I am wrestling with the same stresses. The past year has brought immense challenges, and I, like so many others, am trying to raise my eyes to the proverbial hills rather than crying out from the depths.
Rabbi Howie Stein is the spiritual leaders of Temple B’nai Israel.
The contradictions of time
For the past year, time has taken on a different meaning. In some ways we don’t feel the passage, and in other ways it seems endless. Most of the time, dates don’t register and each day just seems to blend into the next.
But for me, there are some notable exceptions. Two weeks ago, I received my second COVID vaccination; seven months ago, my brother Marc (z’l) passed away from COVID; one year ago, my husband started working from home; and it has been 16 months, one week and five days since we last saw our youngest son, who was here from Israel on leave from the IDF.
I know that we’re not the only ones unable to see our loved ones, but for those of us with children in Israel there is a difference. Not just the time zone difference, which can play havoc with finding the right time to talk. Not just the actual distance and time it would take to get there. No, for those of us who are not Israeli citizens but want to see our kids living in Israel, we simply can’t because Israel’s borders are closed to us. And while they are protecting the country with multiple lockdowns and airport closures, and are leading the world in vaccinating their population, all I want is to be allowed in.
Until then, I have no choice but to subsist on WhatsApp voice notes and video calls until Israel opens again.
I can’t wait to be able to go back to Israel, a place I love. But even more so, I miss my sons so much I can’t wait to be able to hold them and hug them. It’s just way past time.
Stacie Stufflebeam is the executive director of the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Foundation.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I led a very fast-paced life. Each day consisted of over eight hours in school, several in-person events or meetings, a workout at the gym, and many hours of homework. My life was so hectic that my friends joked it was impossible to make plans with me.
Last March, I was a junior in high school and never expected the bizarre turn life would take. I was forced to revamp all my plans. Before I could wrap my head around the new reality, my school switched to virtual classes, and my college entrance exams were postponed.
I had to quickly adapt my extracurricular activities to the COVID-19 world. As co-president of Bnei Akiva of Pittsburgh and on the Teen Leadership Board at The Friendship Circle, it was difficult to transition from in-person to virtual events. It is sad that children are missing out on the fun of face-to-face activities, but I am encouraged by impressive online attendance and engagement. I miss teaching Zumba classes live, but for now, Zoom is a much safer option.
While there has been much darkness throughout the pandemic, I have been lucky to experience many positive things as well. My outstanding teachers and the staff members at Hillel Academy have worked hard to provide a superior, safe, in-person education despite the circumstances. I have been blessed with more time with my immediate family, though I miss visits with my grandmothers. I have learned the importance of self-care and relaxation as a result of spending less time outside the house.
Next year, I hope to spend a year in Israel furthering my Jewish learning, an opportunity for which I am most thankful, especially after this difficult year. I will aim to appreciate every new learning and growing experience and integrate the lessons COVID-19 has taught me: Family time is precious, slowing down can help you better define and reach your goals, and a little impromptu dancing can really lift the spirit.
Shira Wiesenfeld is in 12th grade at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh. PJC