Calgary’s shuls and congregations navigate the Covid-19 pandemic

Chabad Alberta's Faigel Shapiro Kosher Food Panty has been a distribution centre for food deliveries during the Covid-19 pandemic. Pictured above: A special gift to thank the volunteers who have been shopping, baking, cooking, packaging and delivering kosher food to appreciative families in the community. (Photo Facebook).

by Maxine Fischbein

(AJNews) – In the immortal words of Monty Python, “nobody expects the Spanish inquisition.”  The same can be said of the Spanish Influenza and, in our day, the Coronavirus Pandemic.

While the immediate priority is the preservation of life, Calgary’s Rabbis and Cantor are also working at warp speed to preserve Jewish life, feeding the souls of their congregants and communities even in the face of contagion.

While all Synagogues provide ritual, educational, cultural and pastoral experiences and supports, each has its unique approach due to differences in philosophy, ritual practice and denominational affiliation.  The passions and personalities of individual clergy, lay leaders and volunteers also influence the ways in which they serve, in good times and in . . . less good times.

What follows is an exploration of how Jewish Calgary’s five congregations are navigating the pandemic.  There could never be enough space to summarize everything they do; these snapshots (arranged in alphabetical order) are therefore intended to be representational rather than exhaustive.

Beth Tzedec Congregation:  Cantor Russell Jayne

Cantor Russ Jayne

“When we realized it wouldn’t be safe to congregate, our first thought was how will we help congregants to maintain their prayer life,” recalled Cantor Russell Jayne, Spiritual Leader of Beth Tzedec, a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) affiliate.

Beth Tzedec quickly and seamlessly pivoted to the use of Zoom for interactive weekday services and livestreaming for holidays and Shabbat.

I’m very proud that we have maintained our tradition of twice daily minyanim so that anyone who needs to say Kaddish during this period can do so,” said Cantor Jayne.

Because Shabbat and Holiday livestreaming happens without a minyan (which consists of 10 men and women at Beth Tzedec), a prayer approved by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative movement is recited in lieu of the Kaddish.

“This committee has been working tirelessly to help its member congregations bridge the gap by providing virtual prayer services in a manner that our movement’s leading Rabbis have determined to be consistent with Halachah [Jewish Law],” Cantor Jayne added.

To his delight, attendance at Zoom services has been brisk, often exceeding the numbers seen during pre-COVID prayer services.  Similarly, more congregants have been stepping up as daveners (prayer leaders) at weekday services.

Zoom adult education classes taught by the Cantor include such topics as The Great Debates, the Siddur, Stories of Music, and Talmud. The monthly Hazak 55+ series features speakers on a wide range of religious and secular topics.

“The board of directors has been contacting congregants since the pandemic took hold and letting me know who could benefit from a phone call,” added Cantor Jayne.  “It has allowed me to reach out more quickly to those who need it most.

“We’ve hit so many different areas. . .making sure that we connect in some way with each congregant no matter where they are and what their ability is to connect via technology.”

“It is a net positive for us as a synagogue community.  The interesting challenge is going to be how all these new things we’ve introduced because of the pandemic are going to become part of our new reality as we move forward.”

Chabad Lubavitch:  Rabbi Menachem Matusof

Rabbi Menachem Matusof

“We realized right at the beginning that it would not be business as usual,” said Rabbi Menachem Matusof who heads Chabad Alberta (Calgary), part of the worldwide Chasidic movement inspired by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Before Purim I was telling people here that very soon we will have to replace our Aron Kodesh with fridges and stoves in order to feed people.  “This is what people need right now.  ”

With Pesach fast approaching, Chabad converted their entire facility into a kosher food preparation and distribution hub, extending their kitchen and deploying an army of volunteers to shop, bake, cook, package and deliver kosher for Passover food.  Chabad invested in personal protective equipment (PPE) so as to go “above and beyond” the regulations mandated by the government.

Chabad continues to provide kosher food, an effort that is consistent with the words of our sages when they say in Pirkei Avot that there is “. . . no flour without Torah and no Torah without flour.”

There has been a spike in attendance since Chabad classes and Rabbi Matusof’s Pre-Shabbos messages have been moved online.  All classes are geared in some way to coping during these challenging times.

For Halachic reasons, Chabad does not offer online weekday, Shabbat and Holiday services.  They have done several online services that don’t require a minyan of 10 men, including an Erev Rosh Chodesh (Eve of the New Month) service that featured recitation of the Sh’ma and laying of Tefillin.  A Pre-Passover program was dedicated to commemorating loved ones in lieu of the Yizkor service that ordinarily takes place on the last day of Passover.

Rabbi Matusof sees much good coming out of this challenging time.

“Judaism is only going to grow from this, including acts of goodness and kindness.  We are learning, uniting.  We need to make sure it isn’t temporary, that we don’t forget who and what we are.”

House of Jacob – Mikveh Israel:  Rabbi Binyomin Halpern

Rabbi Binyomin Halpern

House of Jacob Mikveh Israel, which is affiliated with the Orthodox Union (OU), has embraced the use of technology to continue teaching congregants during the pandemic.  According to Rabbi Binyomin Halpern, Torah, Talmud, Mussar (ethics), Festivals, Kashrut and Torah classes are being delivered via Zoom.

Prayer services, however, are on hold, due to Orthodoxy’s strict application of Halacha.

“We have to be there to count.  When we are not together, there is no compensation for that.  There is no substitute for real people,” said Rabbi Halpern.

“No technology can replace the spirituality and power of coming together.”

While House of Jacob Mikveh Israel has been closed during the COVID lockdown, the community Mikvah (ritual bath), located on the Synagogue’s lower level, is available for human use with some added precautions.  The Mikvah, however, cannot currently be used for the immersion of kelim (vessels).

“We are reaching out to one another and figuring out what others need.  It has been inspiring to me, a silver lining,” says Rabbi Halpern.

“We are reassessing our lives, priorities and values and seeking to be better Jews and better human beings because of what we are going through.”

 

Kehilat Shalom:  Rabbi Leonard Cohen

Rabbi Leonard Cohen

Kehilat Shalom, which ordinarily meets for Shabbat and Holiday services in rented space at the Calgary JCC, is independent, non-denominational and egalitarian. While encouraging the participation of men and women in prayer services, it is often described as “traditional” in its outlook and practices.

“We’ve chosen not to do our regular Shabbat and Holiday services [online] for halachic reasons,” said Rabbi Leonard Cohen, though the congregation is making use of technology in other ways.

For example, during the intermediary days of Passover, Kehilat Shalom held an online Yizkor service so that congregants could honour the memories of loved ones at a time when there were no halachic concerns.

Rabbi Cohen teaches a Monday Talmud class, which previously took place in congregants’ homes, via Zoom.

“This has been a nice way to keep the core community together,” he said, adding that they have seen participation of individuals from out of town, a trend also reported by the other Calgary Synagogues.

Rabbi Cohen alternates with Beth Tzedec’s Cantor Russell Jayne in conducting a Friday Oneg Shabbat for seniors living at the Trinity, and provides a similar program for those at the Renoir.  As a result of the lockdown, Kehilat Shalom has taken their Friday afternoon pre-Shabbat Oneg online for their congregants and other interested members of the community.

“We are looking to discover other ways we can keep up our nice community feel,”

Rabbi Cohen said, adding that Kehilat Shalom has been exploring the idea of small gatherings that can bring congregants close together without putting each other at risk.

Temple B’nai Tikvah:  Rabbi Mark Glickman

Rabbi Mark Glickman

Calgary’s Reform Synagogue, Temple B’nai Tikvah – affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) – is providing Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services and Saturday morning Shabbat services via Zoom with a view toward live streaming those services in the future.  Temple was in the process of purchasing the necessary equipment prior to the pandemic and Rabbi Mark Glickman estimates that the live stream will be up and running within the next couple of months.

“Typically we’ve been getting better turnouts by Zoom,” said Rabbi Glickman.

“Ironically, there is a little more intimacy there, with faces filling the screen.  I like it a lot, though I miss seeing everyone in person.”

Thanks to the modern miracle of technology, Temple B’nai Tikvah and Edmonton’s Reform Synagogue, Temple Beth Ora, recently teamed up for  what Rabbi Glickman believes to be their first-ever  all-Alberta virtual Kabbalat Shabbat service, which he led together with his colleague to the north, Rabbi Gila Caine.

In another first, a young Temple B’nai Tikvah congregant recently Zoomed her way into adulthood.  While her family will host a celebratory party when it is safer to gather in larger numbers, the Bat Mitzvah marked her ritual milestone as previously scheduled, chanting her Torah portion online.  Although transportation of their Sifrei Torah is a rare occurrence, one of Temple’s scrolls was taken to the family’s home so the Bat Mitzvah could chant her portion just as she would have done in her spiritual home away from home.

“These are extraordinary times,” said Rabbi Glickman who, like his fellow clergy, is employing extraordinary and creative measures aimed at “. . . maximum engagement during a time of minimum physical proximity.”

“It’s good that [the pandemic] happened now and not 20 years ago,” mused Rabbi Glickman who is grateful for the solutions found in technology.

“We are working hard to maintain social cohesion even as we maintain social distancing.  We need each other now more than ever.”

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Calgary kehilot have continued to offer pastoral support and counselling services and to facilitate some lifecycle ceremonies.  Postponements are occurring when it comes to most weddings, B’nai Mitzvah and sometimes even brises (circumcisions) mainly because most families are opting to reschedule until it is safer to congregate.  There is a consensus among the clergy that lifecycle events will be carried out on a case by case basis, taking into account the specific needs of individuals and families as well as government health directives.

Both Rabbi Menachem Matusof and Cantor Russell Jayne say they have officiated brises, sometimes virtually, with only the immediate family and the mohel in actual attendance.  Rabbi Mark Glickman says he has offered congregants the opportunity to share funerals with absent loved ones online.

Chevra Kadisha has instituted additional precautions and upgraded PPE in order to protect the health of volunteers who perform Taharas (ritual cleansing of the deceased) prior to burials.  For now, Jewish funerals in Calgary are being held privately at gravesides.  Enhanced safety measures have been put in place to protect the bereaved and clergy alike.

High Holidays in a Time of Contagion

Many of us are already thinking about the High Holidays this September and October, even as health experts warn that there may be a second and potentially deadlier wave of COVID.

United by their shared commitment to pikuach nefesh (preservation of life) each of Calgary’s Rabbis and Cantor Jayne told AJNews that they will not open their doors for services and programs unless they are satisfied it is safe to do so.

So what will Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur 5781 look like in Calgary?  As medical experts tell us, it is the Coronavirus itself that will ultimately dictate what is possible.  Unfortunately, the virus does not honour Shabbat and Yom Tov.

Here (in reverse alphabetical order) is what our clergy are thinking about this year’s High Holidays based on current information.  These ideas are snapshots in time and will most certainly morph as the situation evolves.

Temple B’nai Tikvah:  Rabbi Mark Glickman

“We are assuming we won’t be able to have everyone together in the same room,” says Rabbi Mark Glickman.  “Smaller gatherings are currently allowed but you are not allowed sing.  For Jewish people that’s a deal breaker.”

Temple is therefore considering online Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

“We will probably have service leaders at the Temple, but there won’t be a sanctuary full of congregants,” Rabbi Glickman said.

For the past few years, Temple has added 20 x 20 talks to their Yom Kippur highlights, during which pre-selected congregants do some visual storytelling based on Pecha Kucha (chit-chat in Japanese).  Each speaker tells a story on an annually selected theme that relates in some way to Yom Kippur while they scroll through 20 images at 20 second intervals.

“This will be easier to do online than what we’ve been doing in person,” says Rabbi Glickman.

 “If it turns out that we can be together in person, it would be a problem we’d love to have.”

 

Kehilat Shalom:  Rabbi Leonard Cohen

According to Rabbi Cohen it is far too early to say what the High Holidays will look like at Kehilat Shalom.

While taking a wait and see approach, he says that weekly meetings organized by Calgary Jewish Federation have been helpful to him, his fellow clergy and other community leaders when it comes to sharing ideas and information.

“We are trying to be consistent with one another across the community,” adds the Rabbi. “I don’t see any of us opening unless all the others do.  We are committed to consistency across the community.

 

House of Jacob Mikveh Israel – Rabbi Binyomin Halpern

When asked what High Holidays 5781 will look like at House of Jacob Mikveh Israel, Rabbi Binyomin Halpern told AJNews he is taking one day at a time.  He prefers to focus on those things that are more immediately in front of the congregation.

“Our sages tell us to do the mitzvah for tomorrow.  We really don’t know what will happen by Rosh Hashanah,” Rabbi Halpern said.

“We will have to look at our options and figure out what we can do in smaller numbers . . . . The first priority is human life.  We have to do what is safe while serving our community to the extent we can. This is a challenge for all of us in ways we see and others we can’t even fathom.”

 

Chabad Lubavitch – Rabbi Menachem Matusof

“Shavuos is coming . . . . Camp is a real, real issue.  I’m more worried about that right now than Rosh Hashanah,” said Rabbi Matusof, who shares the view that there are plenty of mitzvahs to attend to in the more immediate future.

“Like Maimonides says about Moshiach . . . we need to believe and we need to say it will happen.  In what form will it happen?  I have no idea.”

“We will have to be very, very careful,” added Rabbi Matusof who is concerned about the COVID-related syndromes that are leading to serious illnesses in children.

“It is scary,” says the Rabbi.  “We are not allowed to play with it.”

According to Rabbi Matusof, a possibility for High Holidays at Chabad would be a series of smaller and quicker services that may have to happen without singing if the guidelines that are currently in place are extended.

“The main mitzvah for Rosh Hashanah is Shofar blowing,” said Rabbi Matusof, adding that in a worst case scenario Chabad would find a way to get Shofars into every home.

 “My plan is to hear the Shofar and to pray.”

Beth Tzedec Congregation:  Cantor Russell Jayne

“We are all pretty much on the same page that the High Holidays are going to be different this year. . . . We have to think outside the box to preserve the health of our congregants while giving them the High Holidays experience they deserve,” said Cantor Russell Jayne.

“It is most likely that Beth Tzedec will livestream Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.  In order to facilitate a full service, the lay leadership may be called upon to form a physically-distanced onsite minyan so that prayers requiring a minyan can be recited,” the Cantor added.

“We are developing protocols that will allow for aliyahs to the Torah while maintaining appropriate spacing and we plan on reaching out to members of the congregation for honours like chanting of Haftarot which we hope to record in advance and add to the livestream.

“We are figuring out the technology and even exploring whether it is permissible for this to be done with the Shofar blowing.”

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In the course of their planning, Calgary Synagogues have benefited from the sharing of information and ideas at virtual Town Hall Meetings for religious leaders of all faiths, hosted by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Chief Medical Officer Deena Hinshaw.

Calgary Jewish Federation President Yannai Segal and CEO Adam Silver have similarly been bringing together professional and lay leaders for weekly virtual meetings.  The process, which is geared to brick and mortar institutions as well as other organizations that meet frequently with their clientele, began in the early days of the lockdown.

“We wanted to set the table for a conversation so that each organization would know what the others are doing, so we could tackle the overall challenge together while each synagogue and agency also addresses its differentiated concerns,” said Adam Silver.

“These are not easy times, but on the plus side, our community has responded as well as any and better than most.  We have done that by putting community first.”

“At first, the discussion was about how the various community agencies anticipated modifying their existing programs.  With the escalation of the virus and the need to implement new protocols, the conversation shifted because we all had to address how we would be modifying our entire operations.”

According to Silver, it has been “. . . a very positive experience . . . and a productive effort to ensure that we emerge from COVID even stronger than before.”

 

Maxine Fischbein is a Calgary-based freelance writer for Alberta Jewish News who is currently living on Zoom.

 

 

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