Pandemic and the pulpit: Rabbis address challenges of COVID-19

Pandemic and the pulpit: Rabbis address challenges of COVID-19

With in-person gatherings restricted, spiritual guides discuss demands and opportunities for creativity.

Rabbi Barbara Symons. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Barbara Symons
Rabbi Barbara Symons. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Barbara Symons

Although synagogues are shuttered, the pulpit still calls. With the coronavirus pandemic creeping into mid-May, local rabbis remain committed to serving congregants, many of whom they haven’t seen for months.

“I think that one of the things that might be forgotten is that people still have their regular needs,” said Rabbi Barbara Symons, of Temple David. “Regular relationship challenges, medical challenges and mental health challenges don’t go away even if we’re facing a pandemic.”

Pastoral care isn’t necessarily different during this period, “but it’s hard not to be with someone face to face,” said Rabbi Sharyn Henry, of Rodef Shalom Congregation.

Rabbi Yossi Berkowitz, of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center, has tried to approximate in-person contact by ambling throughout his Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Shabbat and “stopping to say hi from a distance,” but agreed that “it’s definitely a challenging time.”

Berkowitz, who runs Kollel Konnections, a Torah-learning social outlet for young professionals in the greater Pittsburgh area, continues to meet with study partners over Zoom, and said that he tries to make most phone calls through video conferencing platforms because “when I see someone it feels like there’s a personal connection.”

Symons has similarly taken to video calling congregants, and said that she shares her cell phone number “far and wide.”

“I’m just making sure they know they can get in touch with me,” said the Monroeville-based rabbi.

Henry regularly checks in on 13 individuals currently participating in the congregation’s “Adult B Mitzvah” program. In recent weeks, the rabbi has shifted to phone calls, texts and emails, as well as disseminating pre-recorded messages in which she reflects on the week, offers Jewish teachings and invites responses.

“I’ve been trying to be really honest in these videos,” she said. “Some people live alone and their feelings of loneliness are exacerbated.” It’s been important to talk about “the ups and downs of what people are going through.”

Rabbi Aaron Meyer, left, and Rep. Connor Lamb. Screenshot courtesy of Rabbi Aaron Meyer

During the past two months, Rabbi Aaron Meyer of Temple Emanuel of South Hills has been creating content-rich videos to stir engagement.

“I think that we’re in a unique time where the only limit is our own creativity,” said Meyer. There is no a rabbinical roadmap, so “we’re trying lots of different things just to go to lots of different people.”

Through residential art tours, online trivia sessions and interviews with local leaders on myriad topics, the rabbi has overseen and produced hours of digital content. The process has introduced him to changing patterns in Jewish behavior.

“I think that synagogues have been asked to make about 10 years’ worth of transformation in about 10 days, and the reality is we should have been doing a fair bit of this before COVID-19. We know patterns of affiliation are changing, that we need to reach beyond our walls in a way we’ve never done before, and so to be able to connect with people, whether they’re snowbirds in Florida, or former members in New Jersey, or California, or those who are putting their kids to bed and can’t make it to a Friday night service, we’ve proven the value of using this as a point of connection.”

Meyer has adapted to his changing role, but noted the irony that may manifest when synagogues reopen: “My biggest fear with this use of technology is that we’re changing relationships with synagogues from a shared belief and familial connection to that of content provider and consumer in a way that’s really challenging, and we need to make sure we don’t go too far down that road.

“The value of engaging in a local spiritual community is in many ways relational,” he continued.

“It is our relationships and our cultural constructs that support us as we do mitzvot, and as we engage in a religious tradition that has a time cycle different than the rest of society. And my fear is that as we become further and further removed from the support of intimate community those connections will weaken and people will move from feeling a sense of responsibility to being consumers of content produced by synagogues without the requisite buy-in and active participation.”

Symons agreed that the eventual reopening of synagogues will require discussion about the use of technology.

Apart from investigating “how and when will we reopen, or how will we stay in touch with the entirety of the congregation,” a newly formed Temple David committee is exploring “how will we use technology to connect with one another,” said Symons. “Reopening can’t just be about antiseptic use, but has to do with the lessons brought forward.”

The days ahead may bring difficult conversations.

“Our lives have been upended,” but there is also a “wonderful takeaway,” the rabbi noted: the value of relationships. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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