Sustaining a synagogue community during coronavirus crises

How Kehilat Shirat David in Efrat managed to keep the syngagoue's activities going despite coronavirus restrictions.

Shacharit sevice takes place over Zoom (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shacharit sevice takes place over Zoom
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When restrictions that accompanied COVID-19 were first announced, Kehilat Shirat David in Efrat was quick to respond.
According to its spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Katz, “We were one of the first shuls to decide [to move activities online].
“Some rabbis spoke about how, when they made the decision to close the shul, they were crying and they were in such pain. It was weird for me because it wasn’t a hard decision at all. It was actually one of the most simple decisions I ever had to make, because this is what Hashem [God] wants. It was very clear. If we know that, God forbid, one person coming into our shul can get tons of people sick, or even one person sick, it wasn’t a question at all. We did it pretty early on. We’ve been doing this now for four weeks.”
Shirat David’s president, Duvy Kupferberg, who is a pulmonary and critical care physician, participated in the early conversations about closing the doors of the synagogue.
“We were looking to guard life. Rav Shlomo felt strongly about that. We were a little ahead of the curve.
“Quickly it became apparent that there was a need to connect to people. We all have that deep desire to be connected. [Additionally], people, men and women, need to say kaddish. How are we going to address this?”
Moving the synagogue’s activities online was the obvious solution. Still, Kupferberg commented, “It’s very hard. This is a time, and Rav Shlomo has been talking about this, we are being asked to do the exact opposite of our instinct and tradition for thousands of years. In times of crisis, we come together and reach out.
“It’s clear that’s not Hashem’s will at the current moment. It’s hard, when you’re a community, to not be together,” Kupferberg explained.
To meet the spiritual needs of the 90-family congregation while they cannot meet in person, Shirat David sponsors a wide array of online offerings, including a daily lecture on Tanya (a foundational book of Hassidism), three daily prayer services, hassidic stories for children, led by Torah teacher and women’s spiritual mentor Shoshana Judelman, twice weekly sessions for teenage boys, and approximately 10 adult Torah classes each week.
During this crisis, community members are being supported in other ways. Zoom shiva sessions have been established for those sitting shiva, as has a special tzedaka fund for community members who lost their jobs. Additionally, the shul’s leadership translates crucial guidelines published in Hebrew into English.
“We’re a really active community. Maybe a few things have been added, but in general this is just who we are,” Katz explained. “Almost every day, we’re streaming live classes.”
The innovation of this challenging time is that now, people outside the Shirat David community, and even outside of Israel, can “join with us online wherever they are,” he commented. “It’s enabled many other people to feel like they are part of the community as well.”
Arguably, the centerpieces of all this online activity are the musical Kabbalat Shabbat services, which take place an hour before candle-lighting, and the musical havdalah services, each Saturday at 8:15 p.m. After all, Rabbi Shlomo Katz is also the well-known Jewish singer Shlomo Katz.
Reflecting on how his musical career meshes with his rabbinic responsibilities, Katz elaborated: “Music goes hand in hand. For some people, I’m more a rabbi. For some, I’m more a musician. Whatever helps them feel nourished. To me it doesn’t matter.
“There were many times, since I got my rabbinic ordination, that I seriously considered putting music on the side. I’m not a passionate entertainer who needs to perform. Not at all. But I feel the need to be engaged with the generation. My rabbis, my teachers, my inspiration, have never let me stop playing music. It’s an essential part of my rabbinic leadership.”
During communal events such as the weekly musical havdalah, the screen rotates among those who are logged in. The children of community member Laurie Eagle created a sign meant to uplift everyone watching.
“It’s really because of Shirat David that the kids have that message,” Eagle explained. “On the women’s Ukraine trip two years ago, we were talking about how we are bringing this feeling of love of Hashem back and how we are instilling it in our children.”
Instead of saying “I love you. Have a great day” to her children as they left each morning, Eagle started telling them “I love you, Hashem loves you, and everything’s from Hashem,” to help instill in them the feeling and the understanding that everything really is from Hashem. She also conveyed the message that “even when it’s hard, Hashem loves us.”
That teaching translated into the paper sign her children created and proudly display when their faces are on-screen.
KATZ REFLECTED on the challenges he faces leading his now-virtual community.
“The greatest challenge has been giving over the notion that Hashem wants us to have some one-on-one time with Him as well and that spiritual, personal growth is essential for communal growth. This is a time for deep introspection. “
“As much as there are all these things happening, I’m always reminding everyone, ‘You must realize that this is a time to see ‘Where am I, when I’m just alone with God?’”
Katz, together with rabbis in Efrat who also lead congregations, deals with new questions of Jewish law that have arisen, including how to observe Passover this year.
The significant support he gets from others “really enables me to be the spiritual leader to the best of my abilities.”
“The truth is, if my wife wasn’t my soul partner in everything that we get to do, I wouldn’t be able mentally to give myself over to the community throughout this period,” Katz expressed.
One of the main support people is Yudie Reinitz, the primary gabbai, whose job it is to assist in the running of synagogue services. Reinitz spoke about the new realities the community faces.
“We’re not physically going to shul anymore. That’s challenging on many levels. For many of the members of the community, part of the beauty of the shul is that it is the physical nucleus of everything – spiritual, communal, hessed-oriented, social programming and general community programming. Shabbat, in particular, is the time it all comes together. That’s when everyone meets up.
“People’s daily routines have been rocked. The way we have tried to cope with the current reality has been on a few fronts. We have tefilot (prayer) on a daily basis via Zoom. That has created a new reality in Halacha. How does this work? Is it considered a minyan? Can people say kaddish? Is everyone davening alone? Are there certain things I should be saying? Can I say ‘amen’ to a blessing I hear online?”
These are all brand new issues. In cooperation with Katz, Reinitz ensures that things are being done properly from a halachic perspective. To that end, he created “Guidelines for Virtual Tefila,” a document that addresses how prayer services online will be conducted.
Most notably, as Reinitz wrote in the document, “A virtual tefila (via Zoom) cannot be considered a minyan.” Nevertheless, mourners are able to say kaddish.
Reinitz also monitors what he calls “general Zoom shul decorum. Participants are generally muted, except the person who is [leading].” He’s attentive to what participants hear in the background when people on the call are unmuted, and to ensuring that no inappropriate household activities are inadvertently shown on a participant’s screen.
Judelman elaborated, “I think it’s particularly challenging for women because of the hours. The kids need their mom’s attention during the day, so we are limited to nighttime shiurim [classes] and then everyone is tired. It is also much harder to focus in a computer-based shiur than in a live, in-person one.”
“But just seeing each other’s faces on the screen has been such a strengthening experience. I definitely feel less alone after a session online.
“I wish we could all hear each other and could have more interactive sessions, but, again, I’m so grateful for what we do have,” Judelman emphasized.
“We all miss each other very much,” Katz shared. “We’re a community that doesn’t just meet on Shabbos. We learn together, even in normal times, almost every day, and we’re constantly engaged in each other’s lives.
At the same time, “Each of us is getting a larger, more mature concept of the responsibility we feel toward the community we’re building. God doesn’t need another building. He had the most beautiful two buildings that were destroyed. He would want the act of building to be taken to the next level. That’s definitely what’s happening here, and we extend our arms, and our hearts are open to anyone who wants to be part of growing.”
Judelman echoed Katz. “I would like to say how grateful I am that this technology exists and that we can continue learning at all. Because we are a community that has a lot of shiurim going on, I think the ability to continue to learn together has been of enormous benefit. Our community loves to get together, but mostly the time we spend together is learning-based and, thank God, that has translated well to an online situation.”
“Of course, we are also known as a very ‘huggy’ community, so that part of our connection has been totally cut off. It is hard, but in some ways, it forces us to develop even deeper relationships, to use words and texts in a different way, to express in words what we would normally convey with a hug. Just like with every other aspect of this situation, it is forcing us to grow.”
ALL THESE online activities are managed by Shimon Detwiler, executive director of The Shlomo Katz Project ( The project includes concerts, trips to Ukraine and Poland and multiday, in-depth Torah-study events.
During this time, it’s his “hand behind the screen that’s doing the rotating through people that are logged in. Part of the reason that we’re doing that is because of the sense of community. We’ve all been isolated from one another, and we all care deeply for each other, so giving each other the opportunity to wave and to see each other and to smile and to see each other’s smiles gives everybody tremendous hizuk, tremendous encouragement. It’s been a very popular feature of the Zoom events that we’re doing,” said Detwiler.
One of Detwiler’s challenges is to make sure he doesn’t “get swept away in the event,” distracting his attention from running the technical side.
Internet connectivity is also an issue, he said, both because of occasionally spotty service, and because “Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, you name it – all these platforms are being very heavily inundated with live content. Sometimes that can cause technical challenges.”
Given the experience some Jewish online events have had, Detwiler keeps a tight rein on things, to keep intruders out.
“With experience and understanding, you can lock it down pretty good and keep the meetings relatively safe for everybody involved. It’s very important that I pay attention to any comments being made. If I need to remove people, I have the power to [do so],” he explained.
According to Detwiler, the standard Zoom event has anywhere from 300 to 700 people plus an equal number on Facebook Live. “Numerous times, we’ve filled our Zoom room, which is 1,000 people, and then we see a few thousand [additional] people on Facebook Live.” With replays after the event, they sometimes get 20,000 views on certain videos.
Katz reflected on what impact these challenges are having on his community. “It’s doing something subconsciously. We’re in the middle of building our shul. We were just about to start to actually build the physical structure.
“We’ve definitely put things on hold, but we know that we cannot go back to shul, once this is over, the same people. The experience of meeting Hashem has to be different. I find this to be a crucial part of building the foundation of our future shul.
“It’s forcing people to dig much deeper than whatever concept of God or of Am Yisrael or of themselves they ever had,” he concluded.