No Shul, No Problem: Synagogues Navigate Coronavirus

March 25, 2020
Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Rabbi Adam Lutz, Senior Rabbi Jonathan Aaron and Cantor Lizzie Weiss take part in a conference call. They have launched the online community JewItAtHome.com. Photo courtesy of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, jewitathome.com is just one collaborative online community that has helped Jews connect and engage now that all communal gatherings have been banned.

Launched by Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (TEBH) and Temple Isaiah, Jew It At Home has been hosting a variety of events, including book clubs, yoga classes, film discussions and children’s song sessions, using such real-time video broadcast and conferencing tools as Facebook Live, Google Hangout and Zoom.

“Basically, the whole idea behind all of this was if our community is going to be locked at home, [I thought] how cool would it be if we, as an entire Jewish community, could come together?” TEBH Rabbi Adam Lutz told the Journal.

The website pooled resources from more than a dozen local synagogues and Jewish organizations including University Synagogue, Temple Akiba, Congregation Kol Ami and Congregation Ner Tamid of Henderson, Nev., along with Jewish breast cancer organization Sharsheret.

The site has both live and static resources. The live resources are listed on the calendar, which color-codes events based on whether they are for children, adults or everyone. Last Friday afternoon, TEBH Cantor Lizzie Weiss led a Shabbat song session for children 2 and under. Earlier in the week, she led a Hebrew boot camp for all skill levels. Jewish people from across the country, including a man from Tennessee, tuned in.

“[That man] hasn’t been able to learn Hebrew and here he was on our hourlong Hebrew boot camp starting to learn Hebrew for the first time in this era,” Weiss said. “I did have the thought as I was sitting there, ‘We can’t end this.’ Hopefully, we will be out of this crazy quarantine in a month or two and even if we are, we have the responsibility to reach out to the Jewish community. It doesn’t matter if you can pay a penny or not — it’s just about putting Judaism in the world.”

The site’s resources also include reading, podcasts and binge-watching recommendations. Streaming suggestions include the Israeli television series “Fauda,” “Shtisel” and “Beauty and the Baker.”

“Just as the rabbis of the first century had to discover what community can look like without the Temple, we are discovering what community can look like without places of worship to gather.”  — Rabbi Jonathan Aaron

Lutz and Weiss worked closely in putting together the website. Lutz, whose background is in aerospace engineering, said he has been building websites since his teens. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, “I have been trying to get this going for 2 1/2 years,” he said. “How do we make use of technology to bring Judaism into people’s homes? Necessity is the mother of invention.”

TEBH Senior Rabbi Jonathan Aaron wrote in an email to the Journal, “Judaism takes place in community, and it is inspiring that all of us are gathering remotely and virtually — actually finding connections even though we can’t physically touch. Just as the rabbis of the first century had to discover what community can look like without the Temple, we are discovering what community can look like without places of worship to gather.”

Other participating congregations include Temple Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, Beth Chayim Chadashim, Temple Judea, Temple Beth Am and Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue.

After Lutz mentioned the idea to Temple Isaiah Rabbi Dara Frimmer, Lutz’s father, Rabbi Barry Lutz, interim rabbi at University Synagogue, said he would like to get on board. And Weiss is friends with Cantor Jessica Hutchings of Ner Tamid near Las Vegas, so Hutchings brought her community into the mix.

While the website has shown what is possible when many synagogues come together, some of the larger congregations are opting to have their own virtual communities. Sinai Temple has launched Sinai Streamed at youtube.com/sinaitemplepresents; Valley Beth Shalom has launched its own online community, Valley Beth Shalom @ Home; and Wilshire Boulevard Temple has similarly launched WBT@home, with livestreaming of Shabbat morning services, discussions and more.

American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies likewise has turned to engaging its students using online tools, with school dean and professor Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson teaching classes on Zoom.

“I think the Jewish tradition values community,” Artson said. “While certainly there is a long tradition of private individual prayer, I think Judaism wanted to lean in to making people communal and sees that as a spiritual value.”

IKAR also has created online learning and davening throughout the week and on Shabbat via Zoom and Facebook Live sessions. In an email to the community, IKAR wrote, “These are difficult and unsettling times for all of us. One thing we know: human beings need human contact. So we’re working to establish new opportunities for deeper spiritual connection, even in this time of physical social distancing.”

“The extraordinary leadership of our community’s rabbis to respond to the extreme limitations caused by this virus has been incredible,” said Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles CEO Jay Sanderson. “The Los Angeles Jewish community continues to innovate and this innovation is happening within our synagogues. Prayer, study and community are continuing in new ways, and it’s truly inspiring.”

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