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Five Towns synagogues keeping members connected during pandemic

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Whether it’s regularly calling congregants, delivering goody bags on holidays or holding virtual programs ranging from educational to social, Five Towns synagogues continue to find creative ways to remain connected with their membership.

To discuss how best to reopen their buildings and restart events such as fundraisers and parties when the coronavirus pandemic ends, executive directors of 55 synagogues in 13 states and three Canadian provinces joined officials from the Orthodox Union for a Zoom conference on Jan. 18.

The participants represented shuls in New York, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia as well as Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver.

The Orthodox Union, the nation’s oldest and largest umbrella organization for the North American Orthodox Jewish community, led a discussion that focused on the impact the pandemic has had on the synagogues’ revenues, and how the Covid-19 vaccine could help them return to normal operations in the near future.

“Once it was safe to do so, our shuls began to slowly re-open in line with local health, government and [religious] guidance,” OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Moshe Hauer stated in a news release.

The officials also discussed the challenges created by the pandemic, such as how the synagogues’ communities, rabbis and youth program leaders were able to provide innovative programming while ensuring the safety of their membership and meeting the needs of those at risk, such as the elderly.

“With limited in-person attendance, as mandated by each state’s unique situation,” Hauer said, “these synagogues had to rapidly pivot to address their communities’ needs as well as the economic impact the pandemic had on their members and how it would affect the synagogues’ future participation and stability.”

Marvin Schenker, executive director of Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst, said that the biggest challenge during the pandemic is keeping in touch with the 450 families that belong to the Cedarhurst shul.

“We have services inside and outside, Zoom meetings, frequent mailings and make lots of phone calls,” Schenker said of how the congregation has remained unified during the pandemic. “The feedback has been positive.” He missed the OU conference, but said he would review what was discussed.

Temple Beth El members received cheesecake for Shavuot last year, and goody bags for Hanukkah. Edward Edelstein, the Cedarhurst synagogue’s executive director, said that goody bags would be delivered for Purim as well.

Though he didn’t take part in the conference, Edelstein said that preparing for a post-Covid world is “a little like a moving target. No one knows what that’s going to look like.” Though the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allow for limited gatherings, a good portion of the temple’s membership — just over 200 — are older, so services and other activities remain virtual.

“The greatest challenge is keeping everyone connected with one another,” Edelstein said, noting that the temple held an outdoor Hanukkah candle lighting, members are sent a daily email with a positive message, the Outreach Committee regularly calls congregants and there are a variety of programs, including an online happy hour, during which members can get together. “It is a creative challenge no one would wish on anyone,” he said, “but as leadership, we were confronted with a situation and are trying to make the best of it.”

Weekly services and Torah study are virtual at Temple Israel of Lawrence. Executive Director Alan Freedman said there are also weekly adult education programs on Wednesdays and adult social hours on Thursdays.

“We’re trying to offer a wide variety of programs and events for our congregation,” Freedman said. The temple’s annual Martin Luther King Remembrance Day event took place online, and Hebrew for beginners and a tot Shabbat program are in the works, he added.

“As we look to the near future, and hopefully a period of successful and expedited vaccine administration, many of our shuls are left contemplating what’s next and how to resume their pre-Covid-19 normal operations once it’s safe to do so,” Yehuda Friedman, the OU’s regional director of its Synagogue and Community Services for Long Island and Queens, said in the news release. “It’s inspiring to see how these executive directors rose to the challenges of the moment and keep forging along during this tumultuous time.”