Reclaiming robust in-person community: Orthodox Jewish life post-pandemic
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Reclaiming robust in-person community: Orthodox Jewish life post-pandemic

Return to 'normal' desired, but it's relationship building mechanisms that 'people will flock to'

Pre-pandemic photo from left: Chani Altein, Etti Martel and Alice Sahel-Azagury. Photo courtesy of Chabad of Squirrel Hill
Pre-pandemic photo from left: Chani Altein, Etti Martel and Alice Sahel-Azagury. Photo courtesy of Chabad of Squirrel Hill

During the past year, members of Pittsburgh’s Orthodox Jewish community have balanced religious practices with pandemic restrictions. Whether sitting distanced from friends at abridged in-person services, or limiting the number of participants at burials, religious expression has reflected new realities. As vaccines becomes more accessible and COVID-19 infection rates decline, though, the community is preparing for post-pandemic life.

For months, Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, of Shaare Torah Congregation, has urged congregants to return to services. Through regular email communications and use of the #showupinshul hashtag, Wasserman has worked to welcome those into a building that briefly shuttered last March following Gov. Tom Wolf’s lockdown orders.

“All of my efforts are to get people back in shul,” said Wasserman. “Shul never should have closed. Of course you have to modify it — make people safe, take efforts to make it safe — but people need to be in shul.”

By definition, synagogue attendance is social and interactive, explained Rabbi Yisroel Altein, of Chabad of Squirrel Hill, and in recent months there’s been a growing desire to gather in person.

“As comfortable as it is to stay home, people want to go out,” he said.

In addition to limited in-person activities, Chabad of Squirrel Hill has used Zoom to transmit weekday learning programs and foster connectivity. Altein is comfortable with the software, he said, and expects it to remain a part of educational experiences even after the pandemic.

Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh also is likely to continue to use Zoom, in some capacity, post-pandemic, according to Yikara Levari, an assistant principal at the day school.

“For most cases, it’s not an ideal way to learn, but for those situations where a kid can’t come to school for a longer period of time, now we have the ability to continue that student’s learning to some extent,” she said.

Pre-pandemic gathering of Dr. Lee Weinberg, left, Kollel Board President Philip Milch, and President of the Orthodox Union Moishe Bane. Photo courtesy of Kollel Jewish Learning Center

Levari described a pre-pandemic situation in which a student had contracted mononucleosis and missed weeks of in-person instruction. A post-pandemic student in a similar situation wouldn’t necessarily need to play catch-up, or work with teachers to create an individualized plan, now that it’s possible to use synchronous distanced instruction, said Levari.

The fate of extracurricular activities is less clear.

“I’d love to be able to say that things will go back to the way it was when we did our productions or Shabbatons, but I don’t know,” Levari said.

During the past year, Hillel Academy has canceled school performances, eighth-graders’ trips to Washington, D.C., 12th-graders’ retreats, after-school athletics and other clubs.

Looking ahead to June 2021, “we have nothing planned,” said Levari. “The most we can think of now is camping with everyone with their own tents.”

Hillel Academy did take students ice skating in early February. Rink restrictions limited the number of participants, so the Jewish day school booked three separate sessions, and in order to ensure distancing during transportation, reserved additional busing.

Arranging extra transport and repeated rink time was costly, and it’s financially unrealistic to continue to do that going forward, said Levari.

“Usually, we would not have done that, but programming is becoming even more important,” she noted. “Kids are missing out on after-school activities and sports and parties, so we understand.”

People are hoping to return to life as it was, but there’s a heightened sense of safety, and with it comes certain costs, said Deena Ross, of Deena’s Dishes and Creative Kosher Catering.

During the past year, and even now, regardless of the order — whether for a Shabbat meal, bar or bat mitzvah or wedding celebration — “everything we do is individually packaged,” she said.

Fruits, each in individual plastic package. Photo by worklater1 via iStock

Ross doesn’t expect requests for additional wrapping to cease or a quick return to buffet-style dining at public events.

Levari said she’s given thought to this both as an educator and as a parent. Apart from ordering individually wrapped items for school functions, her son’s bar mitzvah is next February, and although she would like him to have a party with friends and family, she cannot predict what the celebration will look like. During the past year, Levari has seen COVID-19 restrictions alter many families’ celebrations, especially when it comes to b’nai mitzvahs.

The disappearance of seat-packed sanctuaries or crowded social halls isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, she said. “There hasn’t been as much pressure on the kid and not as much financial pressure on the families. I wonder if smaller-scale celebrations will become more regular.”

For Rabbi Yossi Berkowitz, director of Kollel Konnections, a program of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center, the pandemic has offered numerous lessons, but the primary takeaway may be keeping present, he said. In order to establish boundaries between work, life and home, Berkowitz has worked toward increasing concentration. Whether paying closer attention to those around him, or putting away his phone during prayer, a year of social distancing has led to heightened focus — a practice and mindset he hopes to continue well into the future.

The psychological impact of the pandemic has been significant, according to researchers. The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies surveyed 15,000 respondents in 10 different Jewish communities, including Pittsburgh, about their experiences between May and July 2020.

Results showed there was a sense of isolation, said Raimy Rubin, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s manager of impact measurement.

Those early-pandemic longings for connection may be a predictor of what life will look like afterward.

“The things that build relationships with other people, the things that provide a sense of community, those are the things that people will flock to,” said Rubin. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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