After almost two years of adapting to the pandemic, congregations in the greater Rhode Island area are still putting together new plans on holding services, programs and classes as COVID-19 continues along its unpredictable path.
Jewish Rhode Island received seven responses to a questionnaire recently sent to congregations statewide and in nearby Massachusetts asking about their plans for in-person and virtual services and programming.
“From the beginning of the pandemic, we have been convinced that internet-connected video services are here to stay,” Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser of Temple Sinai, in Cranston, said in his response.
“Online religious services are now a permanent feature of the American synagogue. It was inevitable that this would happen once the technology existed … the pandemic just speeded up the process,” he said.
“I think this [virtual programming] will probably remain a regular feature,” echoed Rabbi Mark Elber, of Temple Beth El, in Fall River, Massachusetts.
In July, Beth El restored in-person services, while keeping online services too.
“During Friday evening and Shabbat morning services, the attendance is pretty fairly split between in-person and on Zoom,” Elber said. “The online presence has remained quite consistent over these many months.”
At Temple Emanu-El, in Providence, there is a minyan seven days a week both in person and on Zoom, said Senior Rabbi Michael Fel. Recently it was moved exclusively to Zoom.
At Providence’s Temple Beth-El, Executive Director Judy Moseley said their daily minyan is online only, while Shabbat services are now offered both online and in person. Moseley said online attendance initially decreased once Beth-El returned to in-person Shabbat services, but is now growing again as the omicron variant spreads.
Online services remain popular with people who cannot make it to temple because of safety concerns or for other reasons, such as being out of town, said Rabbi Marc Mandel of Touro Synagogue, in Newport.
“I believe some online services will remain. The transition helped us stay in touch with our members,” he said.
But other rabbis and temple leaders are less enthusiastic about Zoom services.
“I don’t know if we’ve figured out how to fully pray, and feel spiritually and socially connected, through the digital experience,” said Rabbi Alex Weissman of Congregation Agudas Achim, in Attleboro, Massachusetts.
Moseley agreed, saying, “We know that bridging the gap between in-person and remote participants is hard, and remote congregants can feel frustrated and unable to participate equally, becoming less engaged.”
She added, “The solution is to integrate physical spaces and technology, providing your congregation the opportunity to communicate well.”
During the summer months, some temples saw a rise in attendance for in-person services held outside. At Congregation Sons and Daughters of Ruth, on Block Island, all services were held on its deck from Memorial Day to Yom Kippur.
“We had larger minyans on Friday evenings,” Cantor Elliot Taubman noted.
For in-person indoor services, all the temples said they have strict safety protocols, including being fully masked and socially distanced, and presenting proof of vaccination.
“Our priority is to keep everyone safe while keeping our community together through the pandemic,” said Goldwasser, adding that he recommends that congregants get COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.
At United Brothers Synagogue, in Bristol, Cantor Joel Gluck said they keep a record of vaccination cards. Moseley said Temple Beth-El also keeps a vaccination-status list, as well as information for contact tracing.
At Temple Emanu-El, spiritual leaders are the only ones allowed to remove their masks, if socially distanced, during services.
But even at shuls that hold in-person services, many events and programs have remained online.
At Temple Sinai, baby-namings, B’nai Mitzvah, funerals and shivahs are still on Zoom only.
“We have done a number of adult-education programs that actually do better on Zoom than they did in person,” Goldwasser said, adding that Temple Sinai is offering a virtual Jewish film and book club this year.
Other synagogues have reinstated, or continued, some in-person events. United Brothers Synagogue offers mahjong on Tuesday evenings, and Fall River’s Temple Beth El hosts Jewish movie nights.
But, “We haven’t regained our pre-pandemic levels of attendance,” Elber said.
Pandemic work-arounds are just as diverse for religious schools and education programming, with some classes in person and some online.
At Congregation Agudas Achim, Sunday school returned to in-person only, with very good attendance, according to Rabbi Weissman.
“It’s such a delight to be with the kids in person,” he said.
Touro Synagogue and Temple Sinai also offer in-person classes only – along with a strong recommendation that students be vaccinated.
“We do not Zoom our Religious School because we have found that students learn so much better in person,” Goldwasser said. “We want to encourage that best Jewish learning experience we can offer.”
He also noted that attendance at Temple Sinai’s religious school is higher than it was before the pandemic.
Providence’s Temple Beth-El only offers in-person religious school, but there is an online option for Hebrew school and Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutoring.
At Temple Emanu-El, religious programming is in person on Sundays, but an online version is offered on Tuesdays. At Fall River’s Temple Beth El, all three of their adult-ed Hebrew classes have remained online.
Almost all the temples reported that they offer Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Hebrew classes online to anyone who requests it.
“It’s a mix” now, Weissman said. “There’s a wide range of what people are comfortable with right now, so we’re doing our best to meet people in that wide range.”
And now, with the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, it’s possible that services could return to virtual-only, the rabbis acknowledged. But they expect a smoother transition if that becomes necessary.
“I feel confident that we can transition much more quickly now when changes come,” Goldwasser said. “We could go back to doing virtual-only services and other programs with just a few hours’ notice, if we needed to do that.”
United Brothers’ Gluck said much the same thing.
“How long this will go on for is unknown. But we will continue to be flexible and as accommodating as possible in these difficult times,” he said.
This was echoed at other temples, including Emanu-El and Agudas Achim, which also said that switching to Zoom exclusively would be an easier transition the second time around.
“Many people told us that it helped them feel less isolated than they would have had we not offered Zoom services and classes,” Rabbi Elber said. “My sense of the future is that this technological/virtual component of synagogue life will remain as an option, even if not the optimal form of participation.”
SETH CHITWOOD (www.sethchitwood.com), of Barrington, is a features reporter for The Standard-Times, in New Bedford. He is also the creative director of the award-winning Angelwood Pictures production company.