Congregations are focused on the community’s emotional and practical needs as well.
While synagogues and temples are physically closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, many are reaching out to their members in new ways. Live-streamed Shabbat services, classes and minyanim are common, and some congregations are offering children’s lullabies, a virtual women’s retreat, cooking classes and Trivial Pursuit through Zoom or social media. Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park offers a shivah minyan by Zoom. Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield has a Café Zedek that enables members to share their talents for music and storytelling.
Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield offers an “Online Hang-Out” with Rabbi Steven Rubenstein and recently presented an online Lag b’Omer concert. Temple Israel in West Bloomfield has offered a “Jewish Yoga and Kabbalah” program taught by Yogi Johnny Kest and Rabbi Paul Yedweb.
Daniel Mesa, Bloomfield Township-based Temple Beth El’s executive director, says that their rabbis are dropping in virtually at pre-arranged times to connect with some families before live-streamed Shabbat services.
“It’s opened up a new line of conversation with members. We have home videos of board, staff and members on our Facebook page. We’ve overhauled our website,” he says.
Temple Beth El’s “Pump up Shabbat” program includes more than 1,000 viewers, according to Mesa, while classes attract anywhere from 50 to 150 people. Some programs enable participants to type in questions on Facebook for “live” responses.
Rabbi Josh Bennett of Temple Israel says that the temple has a “robust and exciting online presence” and that the “average reach of their programs has been remarkable” and includes all ages. “We are finding modern, innovative ways to connect with people.”
Congregations are focused on the community’s emotional and practical needs as well. Temple Israel has a program called “Coping with Loss during COVID.” Congregation Beth Shalom is planning to raise funds to help those who have lost jobs or experienced the death of a family member during this time. Bais Chabad Torah Center in West Bloomfield has an emergency task force to help members who need help. Shaarey Zedek has provided lunch for the Southfield Police Department in conjunction with Zoup!, a restaurant owned by one of its members.
In addition, clergy and board members of Temple Beth El, Congregation Beth Shalom, Congregation Shaarey Zedek and Temple Israel, among others, are calling individual members to connect with them during this shelter-at-home period. These phone calls are a way to check on members’ welfare, to maintain congregational connections despite lack of in-person contact and to offer assistance if needed.
During such routine “health and welfare” calls by Temple Beth El’s board, members were asked if they needed anything, and several responded that they were having trouble finding such household items as paper goods and cleaning supplies. That led the temple to contact several members whose businesses could provide these items, which they agreed to provide at cost.
A letter was then sent to members offering these household necessities through curbside pickup at the temple. According to Mesa, each day they receive requests from a small number of people who then pick up the supplies. In a few cases, items have been delivered, including one drop-off at Meer Jewish Apartments. Those who can afford it pay a fee to cover costs.
“People are glad to be back at Temple and to see a friendly face. The service is not just for Temple members,” he says.
Mesa adds that the temple plans to offer catered meals to members in a few weeks. He adds that some members visit just to walk the grounds, saying that it comforts them to be near the temple even though they can’t go inside.
Temple Israel volunteers and staff have been calling older members on a weekly basis and have delivered food to some individuals. The temple has expanded its Food Pantry that provides free fresh food to members and the general community in partnership with Forgotten Harvest.
Rabbi Bennett says that prior to the pandemic, about 100 families received food assistance every other week, referred mainly by local social service agencies and schools. Now that number has increased to 250 families due to COVID-19, he says, including 15 to 20 percent who are temple members, some of whom have lost their jobs. Food packages are being supplemented by additional food donations from temple members. (For additional information, call Temple Israel at 248-661-5700.)
Clergy and administrative staff at area synagogues and temples have found that their work lives have changed due to the pandemic. A rabbi live-streams a presentation for members from his dining room table. By phone, an executive director helps members figure out how to access online programs. “We’re helping people differently than before,” Mesa says.