By Mary Klaus
Chisuk Emuna is slowly starting to meet in person for Shabbat morning services, the first step toward a new normalcy.
After more than a year of pandemic-induced Zoom services and limited in-person brit milahs, baby namings, bat and bar mitzvahs, and other special ceremonies, a few congregation members have been back into the sanctuary.
In-person Shabbat services allowing up to thirty people were held on April 17 and May 1. Shortly before press time, Chisuk Emuna announced that they would be resuming weekly in-person Shabbat morning services with limited capacity, physical distancing, and mask-wearing.
In April, Chisuk Emuna held its first in-person Shabbat service in more than a year. About thirty masked and socially distanced members, selected through a first-come, first-served reservation system, entered the sanctuary and looked around in wonder - delighted yet strangely dwarfed in a sanctuary that has a capacity of about 300.
They sat in “pods,” either individually or in family groups, ten feet away from each other. The rest of the congregation watched the service on Zoom.
“It was beautiful for all of us,” Simmons said. “There was pure joy, a reunion of people who may not have seen each other in over a year except on Zoom. Praying together, singing, and having Torah readings inside the sanctuary was so meaningful. This was the real thing.”
Rabbi Ron Muroff, who for a year held services in a vacant sanctuary, said he was delighted to see familiar faces “even if covered. Isn't it amazing how much you can tell just by looking into someone's eyes? Going forward, let us not take each other for granted.”
He said that much of Jewish life involves community and gathering, from birth to death and all stages in between.
“Together, we celebrate and mourn, pray and study, offer support and pursue justice,” he said. “The pandemic has forced us to be physically distant, yet drawing on the strength that has enabled our people to transcend challenges throughout our history. We have carried on.”
Earlier this spring, Chisuk Emuna members received a letter from Dr. Michael Katzman, infectious diseases physician and Chisuk Emuna COVID-19 Task Force member; Ivy Levine, who chairs that task force, Simmons, and Rabbi Muroff.
“More than a year ago, we closed our in-person services, classes, and programs due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the letter read. “We have done everything we can to protect our members and friends while continuing to offer support and be an active congregation. We are grateful to all who have been planning and participating in our Zoom offerings, but we really miss being together in person.”
The letter went on to state that despite being weary of the COVID-19 restrictions, “it is important to continue to be careful, especially given that local transmission rates are still too high to fully relax. On the other hand, it is heartening to see that vaccination rates are climbing. We feel increasingly hopeful about the future.”
Chisuk Emuna, like other area shuls, is working toward reopening “in keeping with our approach from the beginning of this pandemic, namely the primacy of the value of pikuach nefesh (saving lives),” the letter added.
Simmons said that during the pandemic, many Jewish congregations did not have in-person meetings.
“Sanctity of life was our priority,” she said. “We lost a few beloved members to death from COVID. When the virus was rampant, we wanted to protect each other. We still do. I couldn’t imagine if someone died in our congregation because we let people in before we were ready. That would be devastating.”
Although Chisuk Emuna members missed being together, they focused on having “really good Zoom programs,” Simmons said. “We tried to connect the best we could during this time. The majority of our congregation stayed with us and we even gained a couple new members.”
For more than a year, much of Chisuk Emuna’s life was virtual –morning service, evening learning gatherings, Board of Directors meetings, and more.
“The High Holidays were enormously different since the pandemic,” Simmons said. “We weren’t in the building. We did services from home with only the rabbi in the sanctuary. Passover Seders were small, with some families on Zoom. They weren’t the same.” This year, many vaccinated members joined other vaccinated family members for the ritual and ceremonial dinner.
The pandemic affected funerals too, Simmons said. Instead of families and friends gathering in the Chisuk Emuna Cemetery chapel, all services are outside, with the limited number of people attending wearing masks. Shivas have been virtual.
Simmons said that her mother died last June and was buried in the Fort Lauderdale area of Florida.
“I couldn’t go down there due to COVID,” she said. “Rabbi Muroff and I met on Zoom with the rabbi there to discuss the service. It was beautiful and we invited the congregation to watch it.”
A Chisuk Emuna member’s son who lives in the Fort Lauderdale area went to the graveside to represent the family. Shiva was held on Zoom, where people shared memories about Simmons’ mother. “It was a positive thing,” Simmons said. “It was a very modern way to sit Shiva.”
During the pandemic, bar and bat mitzvahs were held in homes. Chisuk Emuna recently held its first in-person ceremony, a bat mitzvah in the sanctuary with the immediate family and others in masks sitting in the sanctuary pods, while still others watched on Zoom.
Chisuk Emuna adapted well over the past year, using Zoom in place of in-person events. Simmons said that she was thankful for Zoom because “without it, we would feel lost.”
Rabbi Muroff said that technology gave the congregation new ways to stay connected. He voiced support to those whose loved ones died, to those who still feel the effects of COVID-19 and to people frustrated at not being able to visit loved ones.
“Sometimes in life, it is the little things that count most,” he said. “My blessing for all of us is that we appreciate the gifts of community in whatever ways we can access them.”