Nathan Wagner reacts to Temple Beth El’s live-stream Shabbat program. (Courtesy of Lindsey Fox-Wagner)

Our Jewish community may be distanced due to COVID-19, but we’re never apart.

This past Friday, 5-year-old Nathan Wagner woke up, got out of bed — and watched school. Along with classmates at Temple Beth El, he was able to clap, bounce and sing along with the school’s Early Childhood Center director, Susie Weiner, and guitar-playing Rabbi Mark Miller, in a live-stream viewing of the morning’s Shabbat program, all from his West Bloomfield home.

“Our congregation, like others, is working on ways to bring our families together through this new virtual world we live in,” said Nathan’s mom, Lindsey Fox-Wagner, who is Beth El’s communications director.

In this time of social distancing and even quarantine because of Centers for Disease Control guidelines to protect against COVID-19, local synagogues and Jewish schools, agencies, groups and individuals are finding innovative and inclusive ways to continue religious studies and observance — from a distance, while staying together.

From b’nai mitzvah tutoring and adult-learning webinars to children’s art and science classes broadcast from teachers’ homes, our Jewish community has joined an unprecedented dimension.

Torah lessons from Bais Chabad’s Rabbi Shneur Silberberg have become his “socially distancing, but soulfully connecting, Facebook Live” course. Partners in Torah’s women’s division program has become a series of teleconferencing classes.

Temple Kol Ami and Tamarack Camps have each planned virtual Havdalah services, with Tamarack set to launch future virtual programs.

Younger students are “in school” in their kitchens and dens, many alongside parents who are working remotely from home.

Many, like those at Farber Hebrew Day School – Yeshivat Akiva in Southfield, are connecting through Zoom video conferencing, for class studies as well as morning minyan services. Sharing laptops and tablets and dressed in “appropriate clothes for Torah learning,” but no uniform requirement, according to virtual-school guidelines, students and teachers can see and hear one another, with an optional mute button in place.

Our community is continually creating and updated ways to connect while learning, praying and socializing. Virtual program and communal event information can be accessed through the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s COVID-19 resources.

The BBYO teen movement has gone virtual, with live programming and resources for teens, and the Bnei Akiva Detroit’s religious Zionist youth movement is working on plans for future virtual programming.

Screenshot from https://azabbg.bbyo.org/on-demand/home

Kosher Options

In the absence of sit-down restaurant options, local kosher eateries and some area synagogues are providing carry-out service. One Stop Kosher Food Market in Southfield has implemented “senior shopping” hours for those 65 and older or with compromised immune systems.

At Harvard Row Kosher Meat and Poultry in West Bloomfield, customers can have raw and prepared food orders, along with kosher grocery items, brought to their car. “Chef Larry” makes full meal dishes and soups daily.

Some kosher bakeries and restaurants also have implemented delivery and curb-side service. Spitzer’s Hebrew Book and Gift Store in Southfield is offering home delivery on purchases of $50 or more, including matzah, wine, grape juice and children’s activities.

Unexpected, extended time at home allows for Passover cleaning and online holiday food shopping. Many area synagogues, caterers and restaurants are taking Passover orders for prepared dishes. As the holiday approaches, synagogues are making decisions on how to handle plans for synagogue seders, with Beth El now planning a virtual second night seder. The Shul offers a printable Haggadah for those who have attended others’ seders in the past and do not have their own.

Staying Connected

Being at home doesn’t have to mean being isolated.

We are all about to discover time and opportunity in our homes we didn’t anticipate,” wrote local leaders of the Orthodox Rabbis of Greater Detroit in a statement. “Let’s use it judiciously and meaningfully on the pursuits we generally don’t have enough time for, like conversations and interactions with family, extra Torah learning and meaningful private tefillah (prayer).”

Checking in on others, especially those who are living alone, is vital. Those in senior living facilities are living a different type of alone. They may be with caring staff, but they are still separated from family. FaceTime or even phone calls are paramount and are also a way to virtually visit with a sick friend.

At Temple Kol Ami, a website includes both a way to offer — and to request — help, including grocery and prescription pick up, someone to talk to, tech help to access congregational services and programs, and a weekly time to virtually meet with Rabbi Brent Gutmann.

Federation offers a listing of contact information for agencies providing assistance, like JHELP and Jewish Family Service.

The Shul’s Phone Pals provides numbers for those who want a connection and a way to check on one another.

Screenshot of virtual Havdalah service invitation on Facebook

A New Way to Pray

“It is important to think of all the little everyday acts of goodness, thoughtfulness and kindness we can do. They are like prayers,” wrote Rabbi Aaron Bergman in an email to Adat Shalom congregants. His offers of assistance include contacting the synagogue “if you need help with anything, even if you would like us to say a prayer with you.”

Many synagogues, depending on their specific religious guidelines, offer live-streamed or pre-recorded services and some permit the counting of individuals in a minyan (a quorum of 10 individuals or more) when not located in the same physical space.

The mourner’s Kaddishand on Shabbat, the repetition of the Amidah (silent prayer), Torah reading and blessings connected to it — are to be said in the presence of a minyan.

The Shul offers a link to arrange for a volunteer to say Kaddish for those unable to be part of a minyan.

For those praying at home, some synagogues will loan prayer books.

The Conservative Rabbinical Assembly has provided a link to a digital version of Siddur Lev Shalom and Sim Shalom for Weekdays.

An upside to praying alone may be the ability to go at one’s own pace and take time for reflection and studying of the commentary.

According to Chabad.org, those who are praying, not in a minyan, on Shabbat, and without the use of devices, should still pray at the same time the congregation normally prays. The Torah is not being read, so the weekly portion can be read from a Chumash.

The Orthodox Union urges those lighting Shabbat candles to include chapter 130 of Tehillim (Book of Psalms) in the blessing and has organized a group recitation of chapters 20, 121 and 130, along with words of inspiration at 1 p.m. daily (except for Shabbat) at (773) 377-9170.

It is recommended that door mezuzahs are not kissed or even touched.

At Hebrew Memorial Chapel, services are being held for immediate family only, with webcasting. “We are also unique in that a rabbi can officiate from a separate, isolated, part of the building and yet have a visual and audio presence, by monitor, in the chapel,” said Otto Dube, Hebrew Memorial’s managing licensed funeral director.

Graveside services can also be webcast, suggesting families follow local and federal government guidelines allowing no more than 10 participants.

“Private shivah is being held by most families but some, although rare, are announcing shivah with limited visitation,” Dube said. “And if they do have a service at home, it is led by family members only.”

Chairs, books and other items are delivered by staff members wearing masks and gloves for those families.

“We are suggesting to our families to set up Zoom meetings so that people can give condolences without entering the house,” Dube said. “We are finding that most families, while saddened with this extra burden are supportive and understanding of this unprecedented time. They are listening to us and to their clergy. Judaism has always maintained that health comes first.”

Even if our gatherings are virtual, through social media, group chats and videoconferencing, Jewish life remains communal and the connections we have through schools, synagogues and programming continue.

“Though we are not all together face to face, we are still connected in making the world better,” Bergman said. “Everything we do counts toward bringing spiritual well-being into the world and maintaining us as a community.”

For Fox-Wagner community is the key.

“Even though we weren’t all in the same space when we watched my son’s Shabbat program on the computer, I knew his classmates were watching the same thing at the same time,” she said, “This is a scary time, but knowing we were all together, singing Shabbat songs was a special time for me. It was a time to smile.”  

This story has been updated to reflect store changes per the request of Harvard Row Kosher Meat and Poultry.

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