The Mitzvah of Canceling: What Guided Our Congregation's COVID-19 Decisions

Inside Leadership

The Mitzvah of Canceling: What Guided Our Congregation's COVID-19 Decisions

Empty synagogue pews

It all started, as most things do nowadays, with an email. On February 28, we notified the congregation of a new greeting, the “elbow bump,” in a message titled “Share Prayers, Not Germs.” Next came an update with information from the Centers for Disease Control on steps for staying healthy.

The next Shabbat brought two emails: first, a reminder about illness prevention during Shabbat, then a notice canceling Torah study because, after possible exposure, our senior rabbi would be self-isolating. Shortly thereafter came a policy update on food and beverage service and ultimately, on March 12, we issued a heart-breaking directive: "Don't come to temple.".

How did we get here? In just a few weeks, we’ll celebrate the holiday of Passover, telling of the trials and tribulations of Israel, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. There is one person, however, whose story often goes untold: Nachshon.

According to the midrash (the rabbinic story), Moses raises his hands to part the sea so the Israelites can outrun the Egyptians pursuing them – but the waters do not separate. The people start to panic.

Yet Nachshon ben Abinadav has faith: If God said the waters would part, then surely they will. Although the sea rages, Nachson steps into it. Once he does, the waters recede and clear a path of dry land so he and the Israelites may make their way safely to the shores of freedom.

Together with his community, Nachson stands between a known threat – Pharoah’s army – and the unknown consequences of a dramatic change of course. Someone has to take the first step, and Nachshon does just that.

Recently, our synagogue leaders found ourselves in a similar position. With news that coronavirus had reached our community, we stood between a known threat and unknown consequences. If we remained open, it was a matter of time until COVID-19 infiltrated our facility and infected our members. But what would happen if we stepped into the sea?

Never before had we seen a religious congregation – which gathers people together as a core tenet of its mission – shut its doors to members. What would happen if we did? If we told our members to stay home?

On March 12, we convened a leadership team of the executive committee of the board of trustees, our clergy and senior staff, and our facilities and security committee chair. We shared information, spoke with experts, and weighed our options.

Ultimately, we chose to act, doing our part to mitigate the spread of this virus by closing our doors and suspending all in-person congregational activities until at least the end of March.

Just like that, we became Temple Chai Virtual.

Judaism teaches that saving just one life is tantamount to saving an entire universe; the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh (preserving life) takes precedence over virtually all other sacred obligations. As we learn about the rapid and exponential spread of COVID-19, this teaching takes on new and urgent meaning.

We realized that many of our dedicated and loyal (and often, yes, 65+) congregants found it emotionally difficult to miss out on our in-person programs and services. The only way to truly keep them from a crowd was for us to cancel these activities until it is deemed safe for us to be together in the same physical space.

What does it look like to suspend in-person congregational activities? This varies for every congregation and community, but here’s what it looks like for us:

Open Congregation:

Our clergy and staff remain available to serve our members and community in these uncertain times, and our new remote engagement task force is working overtime to develop opportunities for members to connect to one another and to the congregation.

In a few short days, hundreds of members of all ages have joined us in virtual prayer and participated in digital education. The coming weeks will bring opportunities to meditate, reflect, pray, appreciate live music, continue ongoing learning, and most importantly, to interact with and support one another in these uncertain times. We may even have some fun along the way!

Closed Facility:

Our building is closed to all congregant activity. Our maintenance staff is performing a deep clean of the facility and tackling building projects that they would not otherwise have had the opportunity to do until summer.

Embracing Technology:

We had already begun experimenting with virtual programs, but overnight, we became a completely virtual staff team. Tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Facebook Live are our new best friends as, every day, we learn more about how to leverage each platform for the benefit of our congregation.

Supportive Members:

We had no idea how our members would react to what was, at the time, a more drastic change than other organizations were making – but the response has been overwhelmingly appreciative.

Messages of gratitude, support, and understanding have poured in both from those here in town as well as from  congregants who spend the winter in warmer climates and even those who have long since moved away.

Understanding Families:

Those anticipating the rituals of the Jewish lifecycle have been hit hard by the current situation. Our clergy and families are having difficult conversations, both in regards to mourning and looking toward upcoming celebrations as we work with congregants to come up with creative, adaptive, and meaningful alternatives for Jewish life observance.

Thankfully, our families have understood and appreciate these efforts, recognizing the need to be flexible during this critical time.

***

Any initiative this large takes a village, and none of this would be possible without the talents, expertise, commitment, and flexibility of our clergy, professional staff, lay leadership, and volunteers.

From the bottom of our hearts, we thank them for sharing new ideas, learning new skills, and stepping up to a (hopefully short-term) future of uncertainties – just like Nachshon. It is an honor to serve beside them.

Rabbi Ilana G. Baden is the senior rabbi at Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL; Alison Siegel Lewin is the executive director of the synagogue.

Find URJ resources for congregational leaders by visiting "How Reform Congregations are Coping with COVID-19 (and Tools to Help)" which is being updated regularly as new resources become available. For discussions about community communication, program cancellations, community mitigation strategies, and more, join the Safety and Security group and follow topic tags #Covid 19 and #Coronavirus. 

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