Edmonton rabbis navigate COVID-19 with resolve and resourcefulness

by Maxine Fischbein 

(Editor’s note: The interviews for this article were completed in time for our print edition on July 6, 2020 – the information reflects the situation as of that date.) 

(AJNews) – The arrival and trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every person and each institution in Edmonton and around the globe.  As our primary hubs of assembly, prayer and study, Synagogues have been particularly impacted by the imperative to shut down and the uncertainties of what even prudent reopening means to their congregants and communities.

While pikuach nefesh – the preservation of life – is the bedrock value when it comes to their decision making, Edmonton’s rabbis, together with their lay leaders, have devoted themselves to making their congregations and services as accessible as possible during this time of contagion so as to support congregants and community members through prayer, study and pastoral support while respecting the imperative for physical distancing.

Edmonton Rabbis are united in their shared commitment to keep congregants safe, going above and beyond government health directives.  As the Province of Alberta continues to lift restrictions, local Synagogues are beginning to take cautious steps toward the resumption of in-person prayer services and/or other activities.

Each Synagogue has its own fingerprint whose arches, loops and whorls are formed by their various and distinctive beliefs, rituals, and denominational affiliations.  The personalities and interests of the clergy make for additional and unique variations in the ways each congregation is responding to the current health crisis.

Alberta Jewish News checked in with local Rabbis who shared their synagogues’ responses to COVID-19, offered some insights into what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur 5781 might look like this September and October, and described some of the silver linings that have emerged from the pandemic and local responses to it.  It is impossible to capture every detail of the incredibly diverse services, programs and pastoral work of Edmonton’s Shuls.  What follows is, therefore, representational rather than exhaustive.

Beth Israel:  Rabbi Zolly Claman

Rabbi Zolly Claman

Edmonton’s Beth Israel Synagogue, a modern Orthodox congregation affiliated with the Orthodox Union (OU), responded rapidly to the pandemic, completely shutting down Synagogue operations the week after Purim, said Rabbi Zolly Claman.

At the beginning of June, Beth Israel started cautiously phasing in weekday prayer services on the advice of their COVID-19 Task force which includes two frontline physicians, one who is a specialist in infectious diseases and one who serves in an ICU.  While Rabbi Claman stresses that pikuach nefesh remains the Synagogue’s primary consideration, Beth Israel has cautiously reintroduced onsite daily prayer services.

“We are taking a very strict perspective,” remarked Rabbi Claman who added that his Shul is meeting and exceeding the requirements of Alberta Health Services.

Like his colleagues, Rabbi Claman participates in virtual meetings for faith leaders hosted by the Alberta government.  While some of the province’s faith leaders have pushed for speedy reopenings and the ability to welcome large numbers of congregants for prayer services, Rabbi Claman favours a more prudent approach.

“We have not been trying to fit more people under our roof,” noted Rabbi Claman, who expressed pride at the “equilibrium and patience” of Beth Israel and the Jewish community.

It is important to note that, unlike the city’s more liberal congregations, Beth Israel is bound by a stricter interpretation of Halacha (Jewish law) that does not permit virtual services for prayers that require a minyan (quorum of 10 Jewish men).  They therefore could not move prayer services online as some other congregations were able to do.

During Phase I of Beth Israel’s reopening, attendance at weekday prayer services was limited to 11 men (just over the minimum of 10 men required for a minyan).  That number increased to 18 in their second phase of the reopening.

Entry to services is restricted to those who are free of COVID symptoms.

Beth Israel is contemplating the reintroduction of onsite Shabbat services, though a date for that important milestone has not yet been announced.

Rabbi Claman is confident that the gradual reintroduction of prayer services, beginning with the daily minyanim, is a great way to “test drive” the protocols that Beth Israel’s COVID task force has put in place.  It is a point of pride for him that other Canadian Orthodox Synagogues have used the Beth Israel protocols as a template for their own guidelines in response to the pandemic.

Those in attendance must pre-register and are given a map that indicates where and how they must enter the building and where to sit.  Entry and egress are coordinated so that as few people as possible are using the same doors.

“We have to be organized, we don’t want surprises,” says Rabbi Claman,

“It is BYOM, as we say,” adds Rabbi Claman.

“If you don’t have a mask, you are sent home.”

Rabbi Claman’s Virtual Torah Centre is the means by which pre-Shabbat sermons and a wide variety of classes are being delivered and well-attended, not only by Beth Israel congregants but also by guests within and beyond Edmonton.  WhatsApp updates help to inform participants about new listening and learning opportunities via Zoom.

High Holidays at Beth Israel

 High Holidays plans are under discussion at Beth Israel, with Rabbi Claman and his lay leadership considering several potential scenarios.  Current thinking includes a congregational survey to assess the interest and willingness of Beth Israel’s members to attend High Holiday services.  Depending on that response, one approach may be to split the congregation into two carefully choreographed prayer sessions with professional cleaning and sanitizing to take place in between.

The one thing Rabbi Claman is willing to promise is “. . . the most meaningful and impactful services as possible under the circumstances.”

Rabbi Claman’s COVID Silver Lining

Rabbi Claman sees reasons for optimism in his congregants’ response to the overall challenges posed by COVID-19.

“It has been a reality check as to how important the Shul is,” said the Rabbi, adding that “distance makes the heart grow fonder.”

But the most positive result of the disruption caused by COVID is the confirmation of Rabbi Claman’s fervent conviction that “. . . the home is the epicenter of Judaism.”

“This was always true,” said Rabbi Claman who added that the pandemic has driven that important point home for some congregants.   He believes they are experiencing personal growth due to the increased effort they have had to make to keep their yiddishkeit front and centre during the pandemic.

In a recent Alberta Jewish News article, Rabbi Claman urged community members to “. . . try to leverage these difficult times towards a more meaningful life. . . . look at the isolation as a calling and this time of crisis as an opportunity . . . .  to re-calibrate what it means to be a Jew.”

Beth Shalom:  Rabbi Steven Schwarzman

Edmonton’s Conservative Synagogue, Beth Shalom – an affiliate of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) – chose to shut down before the province mandated closure of faith organizations.

“Pikuach nefesh requires that we take all reasonable steps to ensure safety,”

Rabbi Steven Schwarzman told Alberta Jewish News.

Rabbi Steven Schwarzman

Within two weeks, Beth Shalom was running Zoom weekday morning prayer services.  Some individuals who had previously been unable to join the congregation in-person enthusiastically embraced the technology including a 93-year-old congregant who learned to navigate cyberspace because it was so important to her to stay connected with her Shul.

Classes continue via Zoom including Rabbi Schwarzman’s Introduction to Judaism class.  A recent offering exploring the Psalms in the Siddur was delivered with ease due to online tools like Sepharia (an online resource for Jewish texts) and video clips of musicians who include psalms in their lyrics, Rabbi Schwarzman said.

Initially, Shabbat services were not held because of halachic restrictions where the use of interactive online technology like Zoom is concerned.  Beth Shalom has not yet adopted livestreaming but is considering that possibility going forward.

The congregation has taken a different approach to re-opening than many other Synagogues.  They plan to ease into onsite prayer beginning with Shabbat morning services in mid-July, once they have reassessed the number of local COVID cases and associated risks of transmission.

“We are starting with Shabbat services because they are held once a week,” said Rabbi Schwarzman.

A congregant who is an infectious diseases specialist has confirmed that the virus lasts only about three days on surfaces, a period that is well exceeded when the congregation meets weekly.

Rabbi Schwarzman says the Shabbat service will be a good test of protocols around the distribution and sanitizing of siddurim and the choreography of the service, including the distancing of Torah readers, Torah Gabbaim and those who are called for aliyot.

High Holidays at Beth Shalom

 “[High Holidays] were the first thing on my radar once we shifted into pandemic mode,” recalled Rabbi Schwarzman, who told AJN that Beth Shalom is considering three options for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: Onsite services, livestreaming services or a combination of the two.

“The Halachic issues are complex,” said Rabbi Schwarzman.  For guidance, he turned to the Teshuva (responsa) by Rabbi Joshua Heller, Streaming Services on Shabbat and Yom Tov, which was adopted by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards this past May.  The teshuva, temporarily allows for the livestreaming of Shabbat and Yom Tov services due to the extreme challenge posed by the Coronavirus pandemic.

“I am reasonably comforted that [Rabbi Heller’s response] provides a well-reasoned halachic approach to the very unusual circumstances we are in,” Rabbi Schwarzman said.

At the moment, Rabbi Schwarzman is optimistic that congregants will be able to attend High Holidays services in-person.  Nevertheless, the virus precludes the onsite attendance of congregants who are at high risk.  It is also likely that the Synagogue will have to limit the numbers of congregants in attendance during peak times in order to ensure the required physical distancing.  Beth Shalom therefore envisions the use of livestreaming whether or not some congregants are able to assemble onsite for prayers.

At a recent COVID-19 town hall meeting for faith leaders, Rabbi Schwarzman asked Dr. Deena Hinshaw whether lengthier prayer services would pose an additional risk to worshipers.  This is not a concern from Dr. Hinshaw’s point of view as long as other requirements like physical distancing and hand sanitizing are in place, Rabbi Schwarzman said.

Rabbi Schwarzman’s Silver Lining

Rabbi Schwarzman has increased his phone calls to congregants, beginning with the most vulnerable in the Beth Shalom congregation, including seniors.

“I’ve had some wonderful conversations,” Rabbi Schwarzman told AJN.  It’s given me a chance, as the new Rabbi, to get to know people more deeply.”

The Rabbi is also impressed by the actions of congregants who have volunteered to help others and are making their own efforts to keep in touch with one another.

“Beth Shalom congregants are feeling a strong urge to take care of one another,”

notes Rabbi Schwarzman. “It really is a great community.”

Sadly, Rabbi Schwarzman lost his father in May.  Because cross-border travel was not an option he was forced to grieve at a distance.

“I felt at a loss because I could not participate in the rituals Jews have done for thousands of years,” he recalled.

Fortunately, Zoom shiva rooms provided some comfort, but the inability to honour his father in time-honoured ways proved difficult, said Rabbi Schwarzman.

Even amidst the grief, there was a silver lining for Beth Shalom’s spiritual leader.

“It has helped me to understand more deeply the loss my congregants experience when they are at a distance.”

Chabad Lubavitch Edmonton:  Rabbi Ari Drelich

Rabbi Ari Drelich

 “We have been dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming,” said Rabbi Ari Drelich, Executive Director of Chabad Lubavitch of Edmonton, part of the worldwide Chasidic movement inspired by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Like other Edmonton Synagogues, Chabad very quickly organized a variety of Zoom classes with such offerings as Midrash, Chumash, Talmud and JLI classes six days a week.

“And it’s the best coffee you can imagine, because you make it,” Rabbi Drelich said.

He is proud of the fact that Chabad was able to distribute matzahs to Jewish residents in seniors’ homes prior to Passover despite the pandemic, though visits to seniors’ facilities, hospitals and prisons have been precluded by the pandemic.

Shabbos services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings have resumed at Chabad, though the “footprint” has changed.  Participants are physically distanced, sitting at separate tables, and prayers are recited rather than sung, due to the increased likelihood of transmission of the virus while singing.  Aliyahs to the Torah are done at a distance.

“We’re doing everything by the book, excuse the pun,”

quips Rabbi Drelich.  “It’s business as unusual.”

Under normal circumstances, Chabad conducts weekday morning minyans.  In mid-June they resumed onsite weekday minyans on Torah reading days – Mondays and Thursdays.  More recently they have expanded to onsite daily morning prayers.

A unique and timely offering for children is Camp Gan Israel’s CGI Out of the Box summer camp. While the core camp experience is delivered virtually on Zoom, Chabad provides a box of materials that can be picked up in accordance with COVID protocols on each Friday prior to the new camp week.  Counsellors guide campers with age-appropriate activities via Zoom.  Senior campers occasionally require the assistance of an older sibling, parent or caregiver depending on the craft or activity.

Other out-of-the box features of this year’s camp experience include a once weekly counselor drop by visits for young campers and twice weekly drop by visits for more senior campers.  That way, campers can share their art and other projects while bonding with their counselors – from a safe physical distance and in accordance with health directives.

“We’ve found different ways to provide programming for the community,” Rabbi Drelich said.  “It is different busy, but it’s busy.

High Holidays at Chabad

 The question “What will Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur look like at Chabad,” elicited a chuckle from Rabbi Ari Drelich.

“We will be going to Yerushalayim because Moshiach will be here,” he boldly proclaimed.

Ani ma’amin – I believe!  But just in case this doesn’t come to pass, Rabbi Drelich has thought out some practical potential solutions to holding onsite services.

“If we can’t get everyone here, there is a parking lot and a park across the street,” Rabbi Drelich said.

“Shofar is the key requirement,” said Rabbi Drelich adding that no major decisions have yet been made about High Holidays at Chabad.

“Shofar is the key requirement. We’ll play it by ear . . . that’s all we can do.”

Rabbi Drelich’s Silver Lining

“The silver lining in this cloud is that for the first time in decades the whole good-time industry has been shut down.  People are focusing on what’s important . . . those things we cherished, that families used to take for granted,” said Rabbi Drelich, noting that people are eating healthier because they are together at home.

“Like Noah coming out of the ark, we are seeing a brand new world….It was a reset for Noah and the world.  We should reset and refocus.”

Rabbi Drelich also sees hope in the way people are responding during those moments of joy that happen even in the midst of a pandemic.  Although no weddings have been held at Chabad Lubavitch Edmonton since the beginning of the pandemic, Rabbi Drelich was moved by what took place following a wedding in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where the worldwide Chabad movement is headquartered.

There, a couple recently married in the company of only a few people, an unusual situation in that community, but one necessitated by the pandemic.

One attendee sent a text to friends who, in turn, alerted others that the chupa had taken place and described the route that the couple was taking as they left their tiny simcha.  The message went viral throughout the neighbourhood, prompting an enormous number of people to come out of their homes and, while distanced, to clap, dance, and make noise, some bearing hastily created signs with good wishes for the couple.

“It turned into a huge celebration,” said Rabbi Drelich.

“Life doesn’t stop.”

 Temple Beth Ora:  Rabbi Gila Caine 

Rabbi Gila Caine

“We knew immediately that we needed to go online . . . mamash quickly,” recalled Rabbi Gila Caine of the early days of the COVID-19 shutdown.  Temple Beth Ora – Edmonton’s only Reform Synagogue and an affiliate of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) – conducted its first post-shutdown Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat service via Zoom and continues to offer online Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat morning services.

“We had to find a way to still be a kehilla,” says Rabbi Caine.  “We didn’t want anyone to be alone.”

While Rabbi Caine felt uneasy at reciting the Kaddish via Zoom, some congregants felt strongly that it must be done.  A good conversation ensued which led to a solution that Rabbi Caine refers to as a Kaddish Shinui – a Kaddish with a difference.  Sometimes an alternative prayer is recited; other times, she shifts the placement of the Kaddish prayer within the service.

Holiday services as well as Temple Beth Ora classes and programs were moved online with memorable offerings including a congregational Second Night Passover Seder and a Canada-wide Reform Tikkun Leil Shavuot study session.

Other online programs include the Temple’s Conversion Class, Torah Study, a recent series on Shmita (sabbatical year) – with an emphasis on what that tradition means in the Diaspora – and a talk by a New York-based artist who created a Torah in which the genders of biblical characters are switched.

Additional Zoom highlights have included a Kabbalat Shabbat service held jointly with Calgary’s Temple B’nai Tikvah and another prayer service held jointly with a congregation in Israel.

A unique lifecycle event was recently officiated by Rabbi Caine when blessings were recited for a Temple Beth Ora congregant who was about to give birth.  A circle of local and international family and friends gathered via Zoom to bless the mother-to-be who later gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

The teachers at Temple Beth Ora’s Hebrew school responded quickly to their students’ educational needs by producing a couple of festive online magazines that featured games, activities and memories.  The Pesach issue was sent to the entire congregation while the Yom Ha’atzmaut/Shavuot issue, sent to students and their families, featured a memory box of the year they had shared.  The magazines included links to music, recipes and games.

At the time she was interviewed for this article, Rabbi Caine was in the midst of planning her congregation’s first outdoor Shabbat playdate – a child and family friendly gathering by the river with physical distancing measures in place.  Based on the success of that program, she said outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat morning services would be considered.

Temple Beth Ora continues Zoom services for the time being, which allows for a minyan despite COVID.  Rabbi Caine enjoys seeing the faces of her congregants and maintaining a sense of community, an online experience that she characterizes as surprisingly intimate.

High Holidays at Temple Beth Ora

 Temple Beth Ora is planning for three potential Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur scenarios:  Onsite services, virtual services via livestreaming, or a combination of the two, with some individuals leading the service onsite while most congregants tune in to the livestream.

The final choice will depend on COVID-19.  Rabbi Caine, who is Israeli, says that the uncertainty is a state that she knows well, given the frequent periods of uncertainty that are characteristic of Israeli life.

“As an Israeli, it feels very familiar, not being able to plan in advance.  Whatever happens, we will deal with it.”

She has been in contact with other Reform congregations across Canada on the topic of planning for the High Holidays.

“We are learning from each other, even what questions to ask.”

Rabbi Caine’s Silver Lining

 “We’ve been able to maintain our youth group on Zoom.  I’m happy with that,” Rabbi Caine said, expressing pride in the way the younger generation has “. . . risen up and taken more responsibility and leadership.”

The comfort of the next generation with technology has been a catalyst to increased participation by some youth who are assisting other congregants who need help learning how to use the technology that is keeping the congregation together.  Some young congregants are even stepping up for the first time to lead Zoom services.

Rabbi Caine is also pleased that a by-product of the pandemic has been the appetite for additional prayer services.  While Temple Beth Ora typically offers services on Friday evenings and every other Shabbat morning, they have been adding additional Shabbat morning services. Though the congregation does not usually offer weekday prayer services, they have begun Tuesday and Thursday morning Shacharit Zoom services that include study of such topics as Tehilim (Psalms) and the Book of Job.

Each of Edmonton’s Rabbis continues to perform lifecycle ceremonies for congregants and community members.  Some  simchas scheduled prior to the pandemic have been postponed until it is safer to come together in greater numbers while some weddings, b’nai mitzvah, baby namings and unveilings have been held with small numbers of family and friends in attendance.  Some families are choosing to use Zoom or other online platforms so as to include family and friends from near and far.

Time bound lifecycle events including Brises have been conducted by Edmonton rabbis.  In some cases, just the Mohel and immediate family have gathered while their Rabbi officiates via Zoom.

The timing of lifecycle events, the circumstances under which they are conducted, and the number of people attending in person is currently decided on a case by case basis, with each Edmonton Rabbi balancing the needs and wishes of the families with their congregational practices and current health guidelines.

Edmonton Chevra Kadisha

In light of the Coronavirus, Edmonton’s Chevra Kadisha (burial society) has instituted additional precautions and upgraded PPE in order to protect the health of volunteers who perform Tahara (ritual cleansing of the deceased) prior to burials.

Jewish funerals in Edmonton have been held privately at graveside during the course of the pandemic with additional safety measures to protect mourners, officiating Rabbis and Chevra Kadisha volunteers.

While the province currently allows up to 100 people at funerals, the Chevra Kadisha continues to proceed with caution, permitting no more than 15 individuals to attend.  Physical distancing measures are strictly enforced.

The pandemic continues to morph and change, with some health experts warning of a second wave even before the first one has ebbed.  Therefore, everything you have read here comes with a caveat.  As we have so often heard the politicians and medical officers say, the situation is fluid.  By the time you read these words, plans will most certainly have morphed and changed.  For current, up-to-date information please check the various Synagogue websites and bulletins or give them a call.  One thing is certain . . . they will be thrilled to hear from you!

Maxine Fischbein is a Calgary-based Local Journalism Initiative reporter who was born and raised in Edmonton. She still loves checking in with the Synagogues there.

Be the first to comment on "Edmonton rabbis navigate COVID-19 with resolve and resourcefulness"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.