Temple B’nai Torah, in Wantagh, has been busy throughout the coronavirus pandemic, despite remaining closed to in-person services and staying open only for limited use.
Last Sunday, volunteers set up a drive-through Thanksgiving food drive in the temple’s parking lot, and collected 25 turkeys for the Wisdom Lane Middle School food pantry in Levittown.
At the same time, volunteers were harvesting the last of the produce in a Giving Garden the congregation created over the summer. And, in another section of the garden, younger students in the temple’s Mazel-Tots program were learning about Hanukkah by making dreidels out of Play-Doh and rolling menorah candles out of beeswax.
“There’s a whole lot going on, and a lot of opportunities to get involved even though we’re not in the building,” said Rona Kauffman, an East Meadow resident who chairs the temple’s Social Action/Social Justice Committee.
The temple hosts a turkey drive each year before Thanksgiving, with the recipient of the turkeys changing each year. In the past, they have gone to Island Harvest Food Bank and the Mary Brennan Interfaith Nutrition Network.
Jan Friedman, a congregant from Wantagh, suggested the pantry at Wisdom Lane, where she has volunteered for 25 years during her tenure in various secretarial jobs at the school.
Throughout the pandemic, members of the Social Action/Social Justice Committee have met on Zoom, and looked for opportunities to support community members in need. The temple holds charity drives on an almost monthly basis, most recently in October, for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when congregants collected nonperishable food items for Island Harvest Food Bank.
To further its philanthropic efforts, the committee created the Giving Garden at the site of an abandoned playground that has belonged to the temple for decades. The idea came out of an interfaith dialogue hosted in October 2019 with St. Frances de Chantal Roman Catholic Church in Wantagh, which has its own Giving Garden.
Kauffman’s committee joined the temple’s youth group in pitching the idea to the executive board. In late May, volunteers broke ground on the garden, and have since donated over 630 pounds of produce to the local nonprofits Island Harvest Food Bank, Hempstead’s Community Solidarity, and the Family and Children’s Association.
“This year in particular, it’s so important to help them out,” Kauffman said.
The main challenge in creating the garden, she said, was that volunteers didn’t know the condition of the soil beneath the playground’s blacktop surface. They also had trouble removing some of the playground equipment, which included a climbable caterpillar and rhinoceros. So instead of leveling the existing playground, volunteers dug garden beds around the equipment.
That limited what they could plant, however, because they only had four inches of soil in each bed. To solve that problem, a local Eagle Scout volunteered to create raised beds so the volunteers could grow root vegetables, and elderly congregants could tend to the garden without having to bed over or get on their hands and knees.
The temple earned a grant for the garden from the Women of Reform Judaism, a national organization that promotes activism and female empowerment in Reform Jewish communities. Other expenses are covered by the volunteers, but to alleviate the financial burden, they are planning a winter fundraiser in which they will sell postcards depicting the garden in full bloom.
“It’s really becoming a multi-generational project,” Kauffman said, noting that children have held classes in the garden while adult congregants tended to it.
In addition to the efforts of the Social Action/Social Justice Committee, the congregation has adapted to the pandemic in a number of ways. Congregants have been observing Shabbat services remotely via Zoom and streamed on Facebook Live, with the exception of some holiday and bar and bat mitzvah services, which have been held in the parking lot. The religious school has been meeting in person since September, and students follow a hybrid learning schedule similar to local school districts.
“At any given time, there are no more than 30 students in the building,” explained Principal Meredith Luben, adding that classes have been held in the temple’s social hall and in the parking lot to ensure plenty of space between students. Luben also advises the temple’s youth group, which has been meeting outdoors once a week.
“We represent about seven different school districts, so we’re extremely careful,” she said. “We don’t want to be the reason why a case spreads from Massapequa to Wantagh.”
Luben said that the temple’s education program has been successful in its scheduling and with its coronavirus protocols, but is prepared to switch to a complete remote program if needed. Stephanie Goldstein, who teaches the Mazel-Tots, added that her students haven’t been fazed by the adjustments. “The kids have a good time and are engaged, and the parents are happy,” she said. “You can’t ask for much else.”