Pittsburgh area rabbis are facing a daunting task this spring, helping their congregants cope with the fallout of the COVID-19 outbreak, including social distancing, stay-at-home orders, virtual minyans and Passover seders as well feelings of isolation and estrangement.
The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle asked several local rabbis to share their thoughts on both the spiritual and personal implications of the coronavirus outbreak.
Rabbi Amy Bardack, director of Jewish Life and Learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh
I see the challenges falling into two related categories. There’s the challenge of life and death: “Am I or my loved ones going to get this virus?” Then, there’s the societal effects of this: What does isolation mean to our mental health, to economics, spiritual sustenance? It’s hard to hold on to all of that.
When we feel overwhelmed, we can trust that God isn’t overwhelmed. There is a place for prayer, in giving God the enormity, because it’s too hard for us to hold. There’s a place for study and a place for human connection, through whatever technology. What I have found is that when we run into somebody on a walk, we stay six feet away but wave and say hello. Joining my synagogue, Beth Shalom, online feels like I am in community.
I paid a shiva call 10 feet away from the person’s door. I really feel that there’s so much of our tradition that relies on the power of face-to-face contact, I didn’t want to just do that by the phone. In my own family, we’re feeling grateful for having a place to live, for having each other, for finding ways to keep occupied and safe. Gratitude is another thing I’m hearing from people, that they’re feeling grateful for what they have despite all the fears and the suffering around us.
Rabbi Levi Langer, dean of Torah Studies at the Kollel Jewish Learning Center
At this time of COVID-19, many of us are staying at home with spouses and children, interacting with them more frequently than we often do. It’s possible for us to become impatient or become angry. Our challenge right now is to be extra caring and considerate and deepen our relationship with others.
Passover is a time when, originally in Egypt, it was very dark. The Almighty took us out and gave us a positivity and national experience. Jews have always celebrated Passover, even in the most difficult conditions. They’ve used the Passover experience as an opportunity to think of a more positive future. That’s what we ought to be doing right now. God is always with us, and he offers us hope for a better future.
Personally, I try to make phone calls to people who are alone at home and people who may be going through difficult times. We should use the gift of technology to offer comfort and to connect with others. I’m doing some classes both on the phone and Zoom. I have Talmud class every morning with senior citizens. Some of them are not fully comfortable with Zoom, so we stay connected as best we can, even if we can’t interact.
Rabbi Yaier Lehrer, Adat Shalom Synagogue
As someone who observed shiva during this period of isolation, I can tell you how valuable and how meaningful It was for people to be in contact, with letters, notes, emails, cards and FaceTime. The fact that I was not able to have a traditional shiva made every personal contact more heightened. If this experience teaches us anything, it is how important contact can be, even if it’s not in the traditional fashion.
If we take anything out of this experience, it is how much human contact is something to be valued. I hope that people realize how important that is even after the pandemic has abated.
I have learned to be creative in the way I reach out to people. Sometimes it is through a posting, sometimes it’s through sharing services on Zoom. The one thing you can’t do is give up. The one thing you can’t do as a spiritual leader is not to try and do things which you’ve always done. From what I can see, the spiritual leaders in this community have all done their best to reach out to those in our community who need that contact.
In Judaism, we like things the way we’ve always done them. And what this experience has taught us is sometimes you have to find new ways to do these things.
Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, Tree of Life Synagogue
Having experienced displacement from our own synagogue over the past 18 months, to now experience displacement from our temporary home in Rodef Shalom Congregation can be very upsetting to congregants. There’s nothing that could have prepared us for what we’re going through now, as there was nothing to prepare us for what happened in October 2018.
I look for the opportunities we can have. When can we be together? When can we find opportunities for study, for prayer, for socialization? Knowing that we’re all home, how to make appropriate and good use of that time to offer the things that a synagogue should and must continue to offer for the religious, cultural and social needs of our members. So, our mission hasn’t changed. All that’s changed, and it’s temporary, is our delivery system. The Torah is still there, it didn’t go away. Shabbat didn’t go away. So now we just adapt some of what we’ve done to respond to the challenges that we have. I think there’s still plenty of positive out there, people getting to know each other again or getting to know each other better, for example.
Even though there is this virus, it hasn’t changed things. Time still marches on and there’s still things to do.
Rabbi Mendy Schapiro, Chabad of Monroeville
From a spiritual standpoint, it’s much more difficult to put things in perspective while you’re experiencing a challenge. At the same time, it’s important to push ourselves to look for that perspective because that can give us some freedom and some help with how to cope with it.
I’ve been telling my congregants that we should say ‘thank God that we have God to thank.’ What I mean by that is, thank God we already have a belief system, and a feeling that everything is in God’s hands. Knowing that it’s in God’s hands and that God is good, we know that everything will work out for the best. If it were really up to us, we’d feel stuck with ‘what now? The world’s going a little crazy and this virus is taking the world by storm; people by storm, etc., etc.’ We would feel lost. If everything is in God’s hands, is gives us a feeling of ease.
Personally, we have family in New York that have been affected by the virus, at this point they are on the mend. That’s one perspective. My kids, thank God, are well. We’re busy teaching several online classes. Practicing social distancing and safety measures, we’ve been delivering matzah to people’s doorstops using gloves and masks so that people who need items have them. We’re working with a small volunteer group of younger people to go out and shop for seniors in our communities. It’s been pretty hectic. Very different.
Rabbi Ron Symons, senior director of Jewish life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh
Who knew that you can be so connected to people from your own home? I’m finding great sustenance and conversations with colleagues across the region and country, across all faith denominations and the hope that they have of how we can make our way through all of this. For example, I spent a lot of time with the 2 for Seder people online, helping them help people make virtual seders. It was absolutely inspiring to see how many people want to celebrate Passover, even if it’s in a new way that they haven’t done it in the past.
I’ve spent lots of time in conversation with our local interfaith spiritual leaders, drawing strength and hope and optimism from their faith traditions, where we find the shared humanity that underlies all faith traditions.
We brought our three adult kids home. There’s a joy in having all the kids home for an extended amount of time that we never thought we would have. We are fortunate enough to enjoy good family time around the dinner table. That’s a joyous byproduct of this, finding joy in each other. I hope that everyone reading these words has someone in their life, whether it’s someone in their house, or that they can reach out to by phone, or some kind of video way, that allows them to find joy in relationship. That’s what this is about now, it’s about the people in our lives. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.