Smaller congregations face bigger challenges during pandemic
COVID-19Keeping connected

Smaller congregations face bigger challenges during pandemic

With buildings shuttered and congregants at home, spiritual leaders experience amplified responsibilities.

Rabbi Leonard Sarko officiates a videoconferenced Friday night service. Participants attended online. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Leonard Sarko
Rabbi Leonard Sarko officiates a videoconferenced Friday night service. Participants attended online. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Leonard Sarko

In addition to reaching out to congregants on a near daily basis, Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler, Pennsylvania, has been serving as IT manager since the COVID-19 crisis shuttered her synagogue’s doors.

“I really have no one else to turn to,” she said. “We don’t have an executive director.”

While all congregations in Western Pennsylvania are feeling the effects of the social distancing and stay-at-home orders, those with smaller memberships are faced with additional challenges.

When B’nai Abraham — which serves about 60 families — offered its first service online last week, Gray-Schaffer orchestrated the feed. Moving ahead, the congregation will switch platforms, because as the synagogue staffer has learned, there are alternative methods for sharing content on such scale.

The fact that Gray-Schaffer is quickly discovering the difference between Skype and Zoom, or what exactly is necessary bandwidth, isn’t surprising to her: “That’s what happens to the spiritual leader of a small congregation. They do everything.”

Cantor Rena Shapiro, spiritual leader of Beth Samuel Jewish Center in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, described the recent period as “difficult,” “unprecedented” and “scary,” but maintained she’d been greatly aided by the congregation’s president, Bill Snider, and its director of programming and operation, Barbara Wilson.

“We are working together as a team, as we always have,” said Shapiro. “We are working very hard together to get us to the point where we can feel as though we’re up with the mainstream.”

What being “up with the mainstream” looks like, in many cases, is having near total communication and offerings online. The difficulty, however, is that “a smaller congregation does not have the technical equipment in place already, or as quickly, or have the funds to purchase it as quickly, as other larger places. And so it’s been a process for us,” said Shapiro.
While striving to address technical needs, Beth Samuel staff and lay leaders have continued focusing on connecting with congregants. But that too has been difficult.

“We’re trying to reach out right now by email to our membership, but we even have members that don’t have email,” said Wilson.

The congregation set up phone trees, and what’s come from those regular conversations is the realization that it may be a different type of Passover this year, she explained: “One of the things our congregants said is ‘Here in the far northwest suburbs, it’s a little bit harder to come by Passover food to begin with, let alone not being able to travel into the city or get together and prepare food.’”

To help, Wilson recently procured a case of matzah and has been calling congregants to see who has a need. She then asks volunteers to deliver the unleavened bread via “door drops.”

The same has been largely true for prayer books and haggadahs.

“We did a no contact prayer book pickup on Monday where I put a chair outside of my office, people would call when they pulled up to the synagogue, I would put prayer books on the chair, and then they would come up to the door and pick their prayer books up,” said Wilson. As for haggadahs, Wilson prepared a PDF that could be emailed, printed and made available for pickup, mailed to congregants or offered via “no contact drop-off.”

Prior to the pandemic, Cantor Rena speaking at Quaker Valley High School in Sewickley at their World Beliefs Discussion Panel. Photo courtesy of Beth Samuel Jewish Center

Finding ways for congregants to follow along on Shabbat, or during the second night of Passover’s live audio podcast of the seder, are among several services being offered by Beth Samuel. Other services include delivery of grocery orders and pharmacy items.

“We’re trying to fill in anything people need so they can keep healthy and away from crowds,” said Wilson.

Rabbi Leonard Sarko, of Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg, described the recent period as “challenging.”

“Most of what we do tends to be in close proximity of others, and to be able to be distant and still do the jobs we’re supposed to be doing is certainly challenging. On the other hand we have made great strides in doing some adjustments to keep at least the religious aspects of what we are doing here in Greensburg alive,” he said.

Unlike many smaller congregations, Emanu-El, with about 75 member families, had the prescience to order high quality video equipment well before shuttering.

“We didn’t do it because of the virus, we did it for other reasons, but it was there and certainly has been a boon because we could still offer services where people can stay at home, and still provide certain religious needs as best we can,” said Sarko.

The congregation’s order included computers, pan-tilt-zoom cameras and audio equipment, and collectively cost approximately $10,000.

“The reason we did what we did is most of the synagogues outside of Allegheny County in the surrounding areas have folded except for us. So the question is, ‘If you live in Indiana County, you’re not going to be able to come to Greensburg or to Pittsburgh every week, so how do you reach these people and service their needs?’ And we said streaming is not going to do it,” said Sarko. When there’s a Torah class at the synagogue, “I need to have back and forth between myself and the students.”

To date, Emanu-El has largely employed video conferencing to facilitate an interactive experience, explained the rabbi: “Friday night, people are coming in and they’re not only seeing me, they’re doing the prayer for the candles, they’re doing the prayer for the Torah.”

Allowing congregants to electronically engage has been critical, he continued: “Honestly, if the equipment wasn’t there, we would have literally been out of business. There would have been no way for us to do the role that we needed, that we are supposed to be supplying to our community. That would have been devastating.”

Whereas the majority of Sarko’s congregants live in Greensburg, there are members who reside around Westmoreland County. Likewise, B’nai Abraham in Butler draws members from as far as 90 minutes away. The considerable distance between congregants has exacerbated feelings of isolation.

“It’s not like they have lots of emails from organizations like I do that are connecting them to the Jewish community,” said Gray-Schaffer. As a result, B’nai Abraham, is “even more of a connecting hub than it was before.”

“People are social distancing and we’re seeing that they’re really craving some social interaction, and we are trying to figure out how to give them some sense of community without giving anybody any health risk,” said Wilson of Beth Samuel.

While COVID-19 is having an effect on congregational life, some of the changes simply have been necessitated because of “what’s happening socially for us as Jews,” said Sarko.

The truth is that “everyone needs to be creative, large and small,” said Shapiro. “Everyone comes to the situation from a different standpoint and everyone’s going through it and toward it in a different way. But we’re all finding out the ways that are going to be best for us.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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