Throughout my tenure as a student in Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, also known as REITS, I would dream about the day when I would join a community as the rabbi of its synagogue to have the opportunity to bond with a community, to provide pastoral care and to develop programming that would teach children to love the Torah, and all the lessons and stories that it holds within. This was a life-long dream of mine, and in January, the perfect opportunity presented itself when I was offered the role of taking over the pulpit at the BACH Jewish Center, one of the most prestigious synagogues on Long Island, N.Y. My start date was June 1. Nobody could have predicted what it would be like to take on this role during such unprecedented times.
These last six months have been challenging for all of us as the novel coronavirus reared its ugly head in nearly every town and city across America. It has been a time where we have clung to the messages of the Torah and yearned to come together physically as a community instead of using technology in its absence. Rabbis have been working around the clock to provide pastoral care to help as people go through these scary and tumultuous times—everyone has been impacted these last five months, whether it was their health or the economic impact. Starting my role as rabbi of the community in the middle of this pandemic has provided both a challenge and an opportunity, but most of all, it has forced me to be creative to develop ways that we can be “physically distanced and socially together.”
I had envisioned meeting our congregational community through welcome barbecues and seeing everyone at the synagogue over Shabbat and mingling with them during Kiddush, but during my first days on the job, the shul was still closed out of an abundance of caution due to the pandemic. It pushed me to develop creative ways to meet with each member family and show my genuine desire to get to know them while also upholding the strictest COVID-19 guidelines. My original plan was to host members of the community for Shabbat meals in our home, and we quickly pivoted and came up with the idea to deliver home-baked challah and cookies to each congregant’s home. Wearing our masks and standing six feet apart at all times, my wife and I stood on people’s lawns to share a taste of Shabbat since we could not share meals yet. We talked about how their family was faring during the pandemic and asked if we, or the broader synagogue family, could help them with anything.
Once synagogues received the green light to reopen a few weeks later, we held minyanim outside. We brought doughnuts to give out after Shacharit on Monday and bagels on Fridays. While people enjoyed the breakfast treats, it provided me with an opportunity to greet each attendee and ask how they are doing, and how their week is going. It’s those personal encounters that mean so much to congregants and to rabbis as well. It was important to me that we find a way to provide such opportunities and to offer them in a way that was safe.
We gathered for Shabbat services but consciously decided not to host the weekly Kiddush—the blessing over a cup of wine or grape juice to sanctify the Shabbat, which is usually followed by a lunch spread of traditional cholent, potato kugel, baked goods and more. However, for many in the community, this weekly fest provides an important opportunity to mingle and interact with fellow community members. Pre-COVID, some would stay more than an hour to chat with friends. While we are still not hosting these gatherings, we wanted to come up with an innovative solution to the Kiddush itself, so we created “Kiddush to go,” in which each congregant on their way home from the Shabbat-morning service picks up an individually wrapped portion container of food, along with a bottle of grape juice. It allows me the opportunity to stand at the door when people were leaving and wish them a “Good Shabbos.”
As I look back on the plan I originally created in January for my vision for the first 100 days on the job, it certainly looks different given the current climate we are in. Taking over as the rabbi of a synagogue in the middle of this pandemic has provided both a challenge and an opportunity; it has forced me to be creative and develop ways to remind the community that while we are physically distant as we practice social-distancing guidelines, we must still find ways to be together. Certainly, this was not how I envisioned the beginning of my pulpit, but it has taught me an incredible lesson: one of flexibility.
Rabbi Benny Berlin is the rabbi of BACH Jewish Center in Long Beach, N.Y. Prior to that, he and his wife served as co-directors of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC) at Queens College, where they created an energetic and vibrant community.