Caring for your Community in the Age of Corona:
How to be ‘Present’ at a Distance

By Rabbi Elizabeth (Liz) Zeller

In recent months, many have compared and likened the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic to the current global crisis of COVID-19. While the pandemics may have some similarities, in terms of spread, the way in which these two viruses have altered the lives of those affected are drastically different. Both pandemics required citizens to wear face masks and makeshift hospitals were constructed to care for the staggering number of those inflicted. But in 1918, schools and houses of worship were closed[1]. And in 2020, they are still open for business. How and why? Because technology allows us to continue to stay connected to one another. And, at the heart of every Jewish community is connection.

Synagogue doors may have been closed since the middle of March, but many communities are continuing to thrive. Technology has taken EVERY community to a place where we no longer have to halt our day-to-day business and instead can take it up in the virtual realm. Bar and Bat Mitzvah observance, Shiva minyanim, Religious School and even Worship services are all still possible by logging on to a computer, sharing your screen to find the right text, or watching from your home. Board meetings are still on the calendar and even though the decisions that are made may be harder than ever, there is no excuse not to be gathering to make them. Clergy are making pastoral visits in the same way that doctors and therapists are – through their computers. The ability to still be ‘present’ is still there – even though it has shifted to another medium.

But the single best way that my community has found to be ‘present’ for one another is to set up a simple system of volunteers to check in on every single member of our community using the good old-fashioned telephone. No one person can take on the entire task of caring for an entire community, in a crisis like this one, and so you must activate the people who make up your community to begin to check in and see how people are doing and what they might need. And if there’s one thing most people are eager to do right now it is SOMETHING, ANYTHING to help make a difference in our current reality. The most vulnerable population, the seniors and those at risk, are grateful to hear a friendly voice that asks how they are doing and if there’s anything they might need. If we find out there is a need, or that they need to speak to a clergy person, we note it and pass on the message as well as activate another set of volunteers who can help. But even those who are not necessarily at risk or don’t have any immediate physical needs might still feel scared, unsure, and vulnerable. There is nothing more comforting than hearing someone’s voice calling to share their concern and their support for you – because they are connected to you through sacred community. As the Talmud teaches us, “Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh b’zeh.” “All of Israel is responsible for one another[2].”

I often wonder what life was really like for the American Jewish community in 1918 during the Spanish flu pandemic, when everything shut down and there was no technology to keep them connected, no means with which to stay present in each other’s lives religiously, and no way to keep their social distance and still maintain their communal interactions without jeopardizing their health. But I don’t linger on that thought for too long. Because this spring, I am too busy being present for my community to worry about the past – my co-clergy and I are busy preparing the slideshow for our Friday night services, busy having daily virtual “coffee talk” check-ins for those who wish to join us, busy speaking with B’nei Mitzvah families about rescheduling or Zoom options, busy thinking about what Confirmation can and will look like this year, busy reaching out to congregants who want or need to speak to their spiritual leaders. Our busyness has become our business and our congregation is still ready to serve all who want and need community, connection and Judaism in their lives.

Rabbi Elizabeth (Liz) Zeller is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Chaverim in Plainview, NY. She was previously the Director of Learning and Innovation for NFTY, the Reform Jewish Youth Movement, and is a past President of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.

[1] Business Insider:

[2] Talmud, Shavuot 39a