“Nothing I learned in rabbinical school could prepare me for the exact circumstances since I’ve been here,” said Oceanside Jewish Center Rabbi Aaron Marsh, reflecting on one year in his position at the synagogue — a year that challenged him to bring new people together in new ways.
Marsh joined OJC last September, just five months after completing rabbinical school at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers. Before becoming a rabbi, he was a software engineer for 20 years and taught Hebrew school for 15 years, along with being heavily involved with his former synagogue in Rochester.
The new rabbi arrived at OJC that September morning at about 6 a.m. and led a service at 7. About a week later, 16-year-old Khaseen Morris, of Oceanside, was fatally stabbed just a block up the road from the synagogue. “Even before Covid hit, there had been several difficult situations in the community,” Marsh said, recalling other deaths of community members around that time.
In March, the coronavirus pandemic struck New York and forced OJC to shut down and begin online services on Zoom. Sadly, Marsh said, about eight congregation members lost loved ones to Covid-19 just before Passover this year.
“People couldn’t sit shiva; I couldn’t do funerals,” Marsh explained. “It was very difficult for people to be alone during the time they’re in mourning.”
Marsh realized early on that, beyond hosting virtual religious services, he needed to pull the community together in other ways. He created several weekly, themed video chat sessions so people had a fun way to connect while staying home, such as “The Chat in the Hat,” “Log in to Chat with Your Dog and Your Cat” and “OJC Pandemic Playlist.”
“People then came up with their own ideas,” he said. “It took on a life of its own, so that kept people involved.”
Marsh has also been dubbed the “rollerblading rabbi” because he skates around town to greet congregants and deliver prayer books. He started skating in Rochester, six miles to and from his old synagogue, and thought he would take it up again as another fun way to remind his Oceanside congregants that the synagogue is here for them during the difficult time. He created a map on Google with the congregants’ addresses, and takes a different route for each Shabbat.
“We very quickly tried to invent new ways the community could connect,” he said. “It was important to let them know the community was here for them.”
OJC began welcoming worshippers back in person in July. However, the synagogue still uses Zoom to include those who are more comfortable staying home. Inside, there is social distancing, masks are worn and there are new procedures to prevent anyone from having to walk to the front of the room. Services have also been cut down to an hour and a half from the typical three hours to shorten potential virus exposure time.
“People appreciate that we have given them options,” Marsh said, “and that we’re concerned with people’s safety, making modifications as needed while still keeping within the realm of Jewish tradition.”
Typically these hybrid services draw 30 to 40 people in person and another 20 to 30 online. For Rosh Hashana, the congregation opened an additional room and hosted about 70 people in person and 120 on Zoom. Marsh also rode by on his skates beforehand to deliver Rosh Hashana baskets with food and activities for the occasion.
“I’ve learned to not try and predict what’s going to happen next,” Marsh said. “It’s always a surprise, and you have to be really creative and flexible in order to meet the needs of the times.”