Small Congregations Get Creative for Holidays

by Jan Jaben-Eilon | Edited from original article in Atlanta Jewish Times

Five congregations ranging in size from 30 families to more than 100 family members along the west shore of the Susquehanna River held a collaborative Tu B’Av Zoom program as a “test-run event” in preparation for the high holidays next month.

Although Tu B’Av isn’t among the major holidays on the Jewish calendar, the mostly aging congregants needed some entertainment and socializing after months of keeping their distance from others during the COVID-19 crisis. And Paulette Keifer, executive director of the Jewish Community Foundation of Central Pennsylvania, figured the “love holiday” would provide an opportunity to determine how many people might be interested in attending collaborative Zoom high holidays.

“Will [accommodation for] 100 be enough?” she asked, rhetorically, a couple of weeks before the event. “Or will we need the next package of Zoom 300 or 500?”

The west shore group of congregations that planned the Tu B’Av celebration included Congregation Beth Tikvah in Carlisle, Pa., Congregation Sons of Israel in Chambersburg, Gettysburg’s Adams County Jewish Community, Lebanon’s Congregation Beth Israel, Hanover’s Hebrew Congregation and Mechanicsburg’s Temple Beth Shalom. Meanwhile, a group of northern congregations in central Pennsylvania are planning collaborative high holiday services.

Cooperation between the 70 distanced and disparate Jewish communities didn’t start, however, with the coronavirus pandemic. Last October, Keifer’s Jewish Community Foundation and Atlanta-based Jewish Community Legacy Project held a conference to “bring people together,” Keifer explained. “There are little pockets of Jewish life” scattered around Central Pennsylvania that “all wanted connectedness to Jewish life. After sending out a survey, we opened up a dialogue at the conference.” The congregations decided to share pulpits, ease burdens, and expand services, and that has led to the high holiday conversations.”

About two years ago, JCLP launched a relationship with the Jewish Community Foundation. “I had reached out to Paulette because we were working with two congregations in the area that had issues with their cemeteries,” explained Noah Levine, JCLP senior vice president. The Foundation manages Jewish cemeteries.

JCLP was launched more than 10 years ago by David Sarnat, former head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, to assist small Jewish communities prepare for their futures and to ensure that their legacies reflect aspects of Jewish life that are important to them.

Since then, JCLP has helped dozens of small congregations in Georgia and around the country prepare legacy plans. “But I’ve always said that in order for us to expand our visibility, we need to do it from the perspective of the congregations,” Levine said. “This broadens the mission of JCLP. We work exclusively with small congregations on whatever their needs are,” and wherever they are, he noted, pointing to JCLP activities in Ohio, Indiana, Mississippi, and Georgia.

Levine called JCLP’s current process an evolution. “We’re keeping our core mission, but we’ve expanded the definition of legacy. We ask, ‘How are you living your legacy so you can pass things on to the next generations?’” JCLP is based on partnerships, Levine added. “We bring resources to congregations so that they know they are not alone.” Currently “we’re making the point that if a synagogue is doing something that another synagogue is not doing, they’re invited to take part.”

Keifer calls the relationship between her Foundation and JCLP a “synergy. JCLP serves needs that are complementary to our work and we serve needs that help them do their work. Each has a role to help continue Jewish life now or to ensure that what’s left, such as cemeteries, are appropriately addressed.”

That synergy or collaboration is happening across the country to support Jewish life in what Keifer describes as “the hardest possible time,” referring to the pandemic.

Indeed, Emily Burt-Hedrick, president of Beth Tikvah in Pennsylvania, said that the pandemic has “pushed us into collaborating, but it will help all our struggling congregations.” Torah studies and Shabbat services are being held jointly between congregations, and all virtually.

The advantage to Zoom high holiday services is that congregants who had since moved out of town can now participate and see their former fellow citizens. One disadvantage, however, is the inequities between some of the congregations that are collaborating and intending to share the responsibilities of the high holidays.

Reconstructionist Rabbi Amita Jarmon, who has served Beth Shalom in Mechanicsburg for several years as either chazzan, rabbi, or both, pointed out that her congregation has employed her, as Jewish Home of Greater Harrisburg employed Rabbi Carl Choper and Congregation Sons of Israel employed Rabbi Ilan Pardo. All of these rabbis were to take part in the Tu B’Av celebration.

“All of the communities are invited at times that nothing else is scheduled,” said Jarmon, who lives in Jerusalem, but is in the United States caring for her parents during the pandemic. “It’s a good idea to collaborate with small communities,” she said, but “there’s a limit to how far we can go with this. Mechanicsburg pays for me to be their rabbi, and Rabbi Pardo is paid. Our congregations know us and we each have our own way” of leading services.

For the high holidays, they each plan to lead study sessions, although the details have not yet been worked out. The Carlisle congregation in the west shore group, and the Williamsport temple in the northern congregations’ group will each conduct Zoom Tashlich that everyone can attend.

In this unprecedented pandemic, congregations large and small find they need to be flexible. For decades, rabbinic students have served small congregations across the country. Until this year, they generally traveled to their student pulpits for periodic Shabbat services and the high holidays.

This year, they must adapt. Second-year rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, Max Antman, was assigned a pulpit in Juneau, Alaska. Noting that it was a “huge decision” for the 27-year-old originally from Evanston, Ill., Antman is actually moving to Juneau for a few months to serve the congregation there. He will hold Zoom services there, but “the access to outdoors is great and I will be able to meet and see the congregants,” who are mostly transplants. “There will be more opportunities to actually engage” in a safe way, he said.

Rebecca Diamond and David Jaffe met in Jerusalem during their first year of rabbinic school at HUC. Now living near HUC’s Cincinnati campus and starting their fourth year, they will be serving student pulpits in Sandusky, Ohio, and Paducah, Kentucky, respectively. But because they will be leading high holiday services via Zoom, they hope to co-lead joint services, although again, details have not been finalized.

Rebecca Kaufman’s student pulpit is unique, because the small congregation sits on the Mexican border in El Centro, California. Although there was hesitancy about Zoom services when the pandemic broke out, “it turned out it was extremely fulfilling,” Kaufman said. “More people attended services.” She is seeing former residents from about ten states dialing in to join the services, which are held in English, Spanish, and Hebrew.

Details are still being discussed, but the normal one day of Rosh Hashanah for Congregation Beth Jacob in El Centro may be spread over two days. “We’re looking at different ways to do that. We could do some pre-recorded pieces. But one thing is certain: People are seeking the familiar” during these uncertain times, Kaufman said.