High Holidays 2020, what will Jewish seniors be doing?

By Irena Karshenbaum

(AJNews) – With the global death toll from COVID-19 rising exponentially, as tracked by the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center, the only thing certain about this virus is its unpredictability. Canadian actor, Nick Cordero, being only 41, succumb to the disease while American Gerry Schappals survived not only COVID-19, but also breast and colon cancer and the 1918 Spanish Influenza.

In Alberta, we have been relatively lucky having a fairly low cases-to-mortality rate of 1.78%. However, in watching the daily case numbers, most who have succumbed to the virus have been seniors. The demographic has also been affected by the virus in countless other ways.

Jann Beeston, Executive Director of Jewish Family Service Edmonton, reports that her agency is seeing, “Increased isolation, stress and anxiety, and also increased food insecurity, and this definitely applies to seniors.” Beeston continues explaining that JFSE has increased their connections, “by calling our seniors and we will be sending food packages for the High Holidays.”

Minnie Segal, 84, a widow living in Calgary echoes Beeston’s observation, “Covid has been very uncomfortable for all of us. It’s hard on seniors who are living on their own. They are finding it very, very hard. I also have a dog and it helps a lot. This is something we have never experienced in our lives and we have lived a long time and we are feeling very isolated and its very hard. In my opinion, there is nothing the community could have done differently.”

Segal who is active in Voices Jewish Seniors’ Choir, that is currently meeting on Zoom, explains she has been doing well and has stayed socially connected by meeting in the park and talking on the phone daily with her friends. She is definitely attending High Holiday services this year, but is currently uncertain whether it will be online or physically at Beth Tzedec Synagogue. She continues, “There will mostly likely be no large dinner gatherings this year and individual families will go with their own families.”

One senior, in their 90s, who did not want to be named because they felt it was such a sensitive topic in terms of where they would be going for the High Holidays, explained their social activities have been severely curtailed during the pandemic.

Calgarian Harold Lipton, 66, shares a similar story of diminished connections, “Rosh Hashanah is a time when we all get together. Normally, we have a large family dinner, but this year it will be downscaled to my wife and son and his family.” He explains that his children and their families, who live in Toronto and Vancouver, will not be visiting.“Because of Covid, we’ve stopped having my mother-in-law over for Shabbat dinner. We’ve seen her but have not sat around the dinner table together. Like Passover when there really wasn’t a Sedar, this year people will be doing their own thing separately.”

Lipton says he has attended shul very little in the last six months, “I am conflicted and I am not going. I don’t think they have enough washroom facilities, their hallways are small and I’m not comfortable to attend services for a long time wearing a mask. I think they are doing a lot to mitigate the risk and I give them credit to be attentive to that, but I just don’t think the synagogue is physically set up for a large gathering. I’m health compromised so I have to be extra careful. I’ll be praying at home with my wife.”

Lipton concludes, “Covid has changed Jewish life. It’s changed communal life. It’s changed religious life. Changed family life. I do believe people really miss each other. Some people are more risk tolerant and they go out but there is an elder part of the community that has to be more careful. I do look forward to the day when we can resume normalcy in that part of our lives, but we are not there yet.”

Barry Finkelman, who lives in Medicine Hat and will be turning 70 at the end of September, has been driving to Calgary for Rosh Hashanah and returning for Yom Kippur for at least the last 10 years to attend services at Temple B’Nai Tikvah. This year, Finkelman explains since he is still doing a lot of isolation, “Services are going to be over Zoom.” Being on his own for the holidays is not a new experience. Since the city’s only shul, the Sons of Abraham Synagogue, closed in 1999, Finkelman who was the synagogue’s last president, recalls how, “A couple of times I would take the Machzor and go down to River Valley and read.”

He continues, “The High Holidays are as much about being with the community as it’s about prayer and this is why I started to come into Calgary was for the community. This year is going to be different. The services at Temple have been very soothing for the soul and fulfill my needs. I’m going to be missing being there. But I’m a pragmatist. This is what we have to do to have a safe community, and hopefully, we’ll be back next year. L’shana haba’ah.”

Finkelman, who grew up in Toronto and attended a Conservative Synagogue, explains, “It’s a very small community here Medicine Hat. It will be very introspective but for Yom Kippur it’s what it’s supposed to be about.”

Finkelman tells how he has been very busy during the pandemic and has maintained social and communal connections, “I’ve been maintaining a cohort of friends on Zoom, coffees, walks while keeping six foot distance. The computer has been a godsend.”

Temple B’Nai Tikvah has adapted to the pandemic by providing Shabbat services over Zoom and Rabbi Mark Glickman explains that the congregation will be doing the same for the High Holidays. Him and only a few other people, including the technical crew, will be in the Temple building live streaming the services while everyone else will be at home. He explains, “This is based on Jewish values of pikuach nefesh, reflecting the idea that we do everything that we can to protect life.”

Rabbi Glickman observes, “I’m seeing two things that are in conflict with one another. People are really feeling isolated and want connection and on another hand seniors are feeling scared to be in large groups. Seniors are feeling both of those particularly strongly. Our community without the participation of our senior members is horribly incomplete. One of the reasons we’re doing this on Zoom is that seniors can participate.”


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