As COVID-19 forced the closure of synagogues, both branches of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, classrooms and other Jewish institutions, the Pittsburgh Jewish community has found a new way to find connect: the virtual world of digital meetings and online learning.
“As soon as we closed down Federation last week, we immediately made plans to transfer online our current continuing classes that meet in person,” explained Rabbi Danny Schiff, Foundation Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Schiff teaches several ongoing courses including the Florence Melton School of Adult Learning and a series exploring the Rational Bible by Dennis Prager.
Additionally, Schiff said that he had just completed “designing five new courses that will be offered to the community free of charge through the end of May.”
Schiff understands that the classes he, and other organizations are offering, do more than simply teach.
“People have the need to have some significant Jewish connection in their lives. Obviously, we’re hoping to create a sense of community in these classes, not only that people will learn together but that they will get together and communicate in an online setting not just with the family they live with but with the friends they’re in touch with.”
Once it became clear that a period of self-distancing would be required, Temple Emanuel of South Hills moved, not only its weekly services, but all of its adult education and Torah Center programs online.
The synagogue’s weekly Torah Study began to meet via the Zoom teleconferencing program, as did the weekly Adult Education classes taught by the congregation’s rabbis.
Quick to realize an opportunity existed for Temple Emanuel to “put out content, both interactive and static,” Meyer began creating unique digital offerings addressing both the intellectual and emotional needs of the congregation.
“Sometimes that means bringing in people we speak directly to the news of the day,” Meyer said. “We were fortunate to have emergency room doctor Andy Reibach, we’ll be featuring a psychologist who will work with us on things we can do for the anxiety of the day. Next week we’ll have a financial planner, reminding us the best thing we can do is not panic.”
Meyer has also reached across the physical South Hills community, inviting Beth El Congregation of the South Hills Rabbi Alex Greenbaum and pastors at various churches into his office, now converted into what he humorously calls the “Temple Emanuel Studios” for conversations posted online daily at 7 p.m.
Beth El has also developed unique programming available via Zoom including debates, adult education opportunities and parenting discussions. Without the ability to meet in person, the congregation is attempting to find community through the internet, or as they describe it in their weekly email, “as we social distance, we will draw closer virtually.”
Children and teens aren’t excluded from the opportunity to learn together online, either. Religious school programs have moved online in an effort to allow students to meet together and continue to learn as a group.
Hoping to engage teens that may have time on their hands, BBYO On Demand, “allows teens to participate in a new on-demand streaming service featuring 24-hour programming,” according to BBYO Keystone Mountain Regional Director Lindsay Migdal.
Chris Herman, director of Jewish Life at the JCC, pointed out that the Second Floor at the Squirrel Hill JCC now features a full calendar of digital opportunities for teens including video game tournaments, J Line learning opportunities and mindfulness and meditation sessions.
If the idea of sitting behind a desk or on the couch participating in group learning brings you nothing more than a yawn, the JCC may have classes more to your liking.
“We’ve launched #JCCPGHVirtual,” according to the JCC’s Division Director of Development and Strategic Marketing Fara Marcus. “Everyone can’t come to us, but we can come to them virtually through our media and webpage. We have group exercise class videos, Facebook Live videos, if you join our Facebook fitness group, that’s where those live streams are being held.”
Marcus pointed out that the online offerings aren’t available for only one age group.
“We have Silver Sneaker offerings online and PJ Library programming, as well,” she said.
The new JCCPGHVirtual also includes demos from personal trainers and information from health and wellness experts.
One benefit of the new opportunities created by the various Jewish institutions is price. The content is free and doesn’t require membership.
“We’re open to the community right now, our main focus is community, especially in times of crisis,” Marcus said.
For Meyer, the online offerings are also a way to connect beyond the city.
“This gives us an opportunity to connect, not just with our members here in Pittsburgh, or snowbirds in Florida, but people throughout the world in different ways than we otherwise would.”
The rabbi believes the future will continue to include the type of virtual offerings now being created out of necessity.
“This use of technology allows people to stay connected. It’s opening up pathways and vehicles we would be wise not to stop using once the current situation has ended,” he said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.