Lessons learned: How adapting to the pandemic will enhance Jewish community services

William Motchan
Rabbi James Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth gets ready for Shabbat services that would be live-streamed to congregants on Jan. 8.

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

Here are three phrases you probably never heard before 2020:

• Zoom mitzvah

• Drive-through sukkah

• DIY seder kit

Necessity, along with the pandemic, was the mother of invention. Since mid-March, St. Louis Jewish organizations found innovative ways to celebrate the holidays, connect with each other and maintain a sense of normalcy in a very abnormal environment.

Nearly everyone took advantage of technology, using online tools for virtual gatherings and worship, as well as for learning and even exercise. In-person events required social distancing. Everyone adapted and modified their practices. In the process, they learned valuable lessons so that 2021 could begin with minimal disruption.

The response to COVID-19 by local Jewish institutions was measured, balancing practical considerations and safety protocols. Following are some examples. 

Innovations born by the pandemic

Congregation Shaare Emeth had been livestreaming services long before COVID-19 emerged. The congregation’s investment in networking capabilities and video cameras came in handy last year when b’nai mitzvahs and other events went virtual. It also was a recognition that the embedded technology itself was a mitzvah, Rabbi James Bennett said.

“I think we’re really at the threshold of learning from this past year of forced experimentation with technology how to use it more effectively,” Bennett said. “Over the last year, we moved from survival mode to a planning-ahead mode. How can we invest in additional technology that can allow us, when we are once again gathering in person, to take advantage of what we’ve learned? 

“Many people want to join services who live out of town or are in living situations where they are not as mobile. We’re really experimenting with looking forward to create worship experiences that will be more accessible.”

Safe, socially distanced holiday celebrations also could be here to stay in some form, Bennett said.

“We will emerge in a new normal after the pandemic,” he said. “It may be that every year we’ll have a drive-through Sukkot celebration. Or a Hanukkah gathering, a festival of lights in our parking lot that brings families together in new ways, not by necessity but by choice. 

“Any organization that hopes to simply go back to the way things were before the pandemic I think is missing an opportunity to really explore how we can take the best of what we were forced to do by this experience and leverage it into the best of what we are capable of doing. I really believe we’re going to have a very exciting, innovative Jewish future because of how we transformed as a result of this necessity.”

J was the first to reopen

One of the first St. Louis area Jewish organizations to reopen after the initial sheltering-in-place period in mid-March was the Jewish Community Center. The process leading to reopening was complex and required careful planning, said Lynn Wittels, president and CEO.

“We had to think about the structure of the whole program,” Wittels said. “We had to look at the preschool and get input from families, how much risk were they willing to accept. We also have a number of older teachers who have been here for 10 and 20 and 30 years, so they had special considerations. So there were lots of nuances that the whole system had been thinking about.”

The virtual J saw an increase in use last year, Wittels said. Streaming was also beneficial for attendance at the Jewish Book Festival.

“For the book festival, there were people attending from all over the country,” she said. “We  are pretty well known in the JCC world for the size and the great quality of our cultural arts program, so we were able to provide links for people outside of St. Louis who heard about our book festival events.”

Still, a number of members who weren’t comfortable leaving the shelter of their homes froze their J account. That certainly had a financial impact, but Wittels said community support was unwavering.

“We had people who, although they have decided not to come to the J, they understand the importance of this organization,” Wittels said. “So they continue to support it by paying dues and for that we are eternally grateful.”

Greater demand at food pantry

Jewish Family Services (JFS) is one local Jewish agency that had a significant increase in demand during 2020. The need was especially evident in the area of financial assistance and food.

“Last year, 26% more people requested rent, mortgage and utility bill assistance and help with medical bills, too, said Miriam Seidenfeld, CEO of JFS. “That’s a huge increase, and it’s growing because it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

At the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry, demand was up by 30%. In 2019, the food pantry had 15,100 visitors. That jumped to 20,500 last year. The food pantry relies heavily on its dedicated volunteers. In the early stages of the pandemic, the food pantry had fewer volunteers. At one point, it was necessary to hire paid temporary help to fill that void.

“Then a magical thing happened,” Seidenfeld said. “The community came together as more people started to volunteer and more of the existing volunteers were able to come back at different times once procedures were in place that were safe for them. So we have more than 250 people volunteering now.”

Seidenfeld said the performance of JFS staff members illustrated that they had the strength and flexibility to perform at a high level during a challenging year.

“Internally, we found out that our staff is highly adaptable and highly flexible,” she said. “They continue to provide the services we provided before the pandemic in the same high quality. Child abuse prevention was critical before the pandemic, and it became even more critical afterward because kids were at home and they couldn’t always say to their teachers that something was wrong, or their teacher might not notice it over the computer screen. So it became really important that we got our virtual child abuse prevention presentation put together and train our staff to communicate as effectively over the screen as they did in person to help kids.”

Virtual conferences a hit for JCRC

Like the J’s experience with online programs, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of St. Louis found success with virtual conferences.

“We hosted a five-part racial equity educational series that had speakers from all over the country, including some formerly from St. Louis who have since moved away,” said Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, JCRC executive director. “We also welcomed people from other parts of the country. We found that we had more people participating and people who would not have necessarily participated in similar programs.”

The conversations in those sessions can be uncomfortable and intimidating for some people, she said, but virtual viewing actually made it easier to address those topics. If the discussion hit a nerve, a participant could always log off. When a group meets in-person and someone gets up to leave during a discussion, it’s much more conspicuous.

“Another big example for us was in August, when we did a series with some of the rabbis in the community talking about Israel,” Picker Neiss said. “It brought a wide swath of people, and there was an intimacy to the dialogue in part because it was a webinar. So there were 200 people on Zoom, but only four people were visible in conversation with each other. It was almost like everybody else was kind of eavesdropping, like a fly on the wall, and we were able to have a much more intimate conversation.”

While there’s no substitute for the experience of a physical meeting, Picker Neiss said, it’s likely that online programs will continue after the pandemic.

“I don’t think it will replace all of our programming, but we’ve come to realize that it’s in fact another tool that we have that available to us,” Picker Neiss said. 

Communication is key

Residents of senior living facilities had an especially calamitous year in 2020, as COVID-19 ravaged older adult communities. But at Crown Center in University City, there were few disruptions to daily life. Most staff worked remotely. Social gatherings were suspended, and the Circle@Crown Cafe changed to carryout. Residents quickly adapted to safety protocols, said Katie Garland, client services director.

“I thought we would have resistance about stopping programs, but people seemed really relieved that we were taking actions to protect the community and that there was a clear vision to do whatever was necessary to limit exposure to the virus,” said Garland, who has a master’s degree in social work. “Of course, we’ve been in close communication with our residents. We’re partners here trying to get through this together. People are incredibly adaptable.”

Because Crown Center is an independent living facility, residents have been able to see their loved ones, albeit with safety protocols in place. Crown also has an excellent meal program via the Circle@Crown Cafe, which has been delivering nearly 500 meals per week during the pandemic. Last summer, the Crown Center staff also took the initiative to offer residents a respite from the lack of entertainment. The facility partnered with musicians from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for an outdoor, socially distanced concert.

Garland said open communication with residents was a key to limiting the spread of the virus while maintaining a sense of normalcy in the community.

“Resident communications are really important,” she said. “We also use targeted outreach efforts. Sometimes that’s just dropping a letter or a note to say that that we care, or a phone call or coordinating with volunteers. We’ve been trying to communicate in different ways and offer various outreach to our residents who may need more support.”

Medical professionals on board at Mirowitz

As COVID-19 forced many institutions to shut down in early 2020,the leadership at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School began planning to reopen. They gathered input from medical professionals who are parents of students. Their willingness to offer counsel and advice was an unexpected surprise, said Cheryl Maayan, head of school.

“When the pandemic hit, I had a team of parents who are doctors who have expertise that we needed desperately,” Maayan said. “They donated hundreds of volunteer hours to us, and they have been critical in making everything happen.”

The Mirowitz reopening last August was the result of meetings and consensus from those medical professionals. Maayan said their assistance was crucial to a safe environment for students and staff. One bonus is the school has parents who are more engaged in their children’s education than ever before.

“In addition to all the stress they’re experiencing in their workplaces during the pandemic, they’re at our beck and call,” Maayan said. “We sometimes ask them questions multiple times a day, and they respond immediately.”

The safety protocols at Mirowitz are working. No quarantines have been necessary since reopening. One way the school has maintained control is by limiting access. Only school personnel may enter the building. The downside is that parents can feel disconnected from the school. Maayan said some creativity has been required to maintain a connection. One method is Zoom meetings for morning services.

“We have a lot of parents who are medical personnel,” she said. “We see them on Zoom in the hospital with their full medical gear on joining us for services in the morning. They’re getting some meaningful Jewish time with their kids. That also extends to grandparents and relatives in Israel and as far away as Africa who are joining us for t’filah services on Zoom.”

As Mirowitz students began arriving for classes in the new year, not much changed for the school staff. They already had a good safety record. The lessons learned last year were to be flexible and adapt to change, Maayan said.

“2021 looks hopeful. It wasn’t a big change for us,” she said. “One lesson we learned was that we can do this, and there is now more data that shows that schools are not spreaders of COVID and that with the appropriate strategies in place, schools can be safe places for children.”

Chabad to the rescue

Last year, the week before Passover, cars drove through the parking lot at the Chabad regional office in University City to pick up seder kits. On erev Rosh Hashanah at the Chabad of the Central West End, Rabbi Yossi Abenson and his wife/co-director, Goldie, prepared dozens of meal kits. A steady stream of grateful and hungry Washington University and St. Louis University graduate students came by to pick up a full meal, including brisket and wine.

Food and holidays go hand-in-hand in Jewish homes, so it made sense for Chabad to provide the ingredients to celebrate, said  Rabbi Yosef Landa, regional director of Chabad of St. Louis.

“We love finding institutionally neutral things to enhance Jewish life, and we try to find those things,” Landa said. “That’s why there’s a big silver lining in 2020 with COVID, because it gave us a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate that and live that out…I hope we can continue and grow some of the hitherto unanticipated doorways that opened up.”

The five local Chabad centers also organized outdoor, socially distanced Rosh Hashanah services, which drew more than 800 attendees.

The Chabad team decided early during the pandemic to go big and offer seder kits. Many Jewish families had attended seders in the past but found creating their own a daunting task. The Chabad kit included every component for the ceremony, while its website offered seder DIY steps. The program was a big hit with the community, Landa said.

“There’s a grandma near here, and her husband passed away 30 years ago,” he said. “She wrote to me in April during the lockdown and she said she’d never been alone before for a seder, and she said, ‘You saved my life.’ ”