Jewish Atlanta may look back on March 2020 as the beginning of lasting changes in the life of the community.
For now, though, the threat posed by the coronavirus, which is responsible for the disease COVID-19, is forcing congregations, schools and communal organizations, not to mention individuals, to be nimble in how they adapt to a new reality.
“A brave new world” is what David Abusch-Magder, The Epstein School’s head of school, called it.
Rituals and traditions, some dating back hundreds of years, are being discouraged as potential health hazards.
“Social distancing” is in. Going to shul with sniffles or a cough is out. Following services online is in. Kissing a mezuzah or Torah scroll is out. Pointing reverently is in. Shaking hands and hugging when greeting people is out. Fist and elbow bumps, or placing your hand over your heart, are in. A human web of hands on shoulders during hamotzi (blessing over bread) is out. Communal supplies of tallitot and kippot are being put away.
And no more grabbing food at the oneg with hands. That’s what the tongs are for. At Congregation Etz Chaim, the oneg offered prepackaged bagels and cookies, while Rabbi Daniel Dorsch wore gloves to tear the challah.
What it means to be in community is being redefined. Modern technology has, by necessity, expanded the reach of ancient prayers to those for whom safeguarding their health takes precedence over attending services. Not only worship services, but also education for children and adults and other programming, is going digital at numerous congregations.
In the Atlanta Jewish community, as throughout society, the threat to public health has accelerated the pace of changes in how men and women work, and how teachers teach and students learn.
Even as this article was being prepared, new reports of measures taken on an emergency basis were received. More can be expected in the days ahead. How long they remain in effect will depend on how soon the spread of the potentially deadly disease is brought under control.
In the short term, to help “flatten the curve” – the phrase for reducing the rate of infection – several institutions have closed their doors, temporarily.
The Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta closed the evening of March 13 and will remain closed through at least March 20. That means all programs, from pickle ball to preschool.
In an email to the “Marcus JCC Family,” CEO Jared Powers said, “Our decision to keep the Marcus JCC closed was not an easy one, but we are steadfast in our commitment to keep our community safe and to do our part to stop the spread of this virus. … As an agency, we would love nothing more than to continue to operate and serve our community during these difficult times in the manner you are all accustomed to. Unfortunately, most of our programs and activities do not lend themselves to social distancing. We simply cannot risk endangering people’s health. We will reopen our facilities when we are confident we can provide a safe environment for our members and staff.”
Likewise at The Temple, “As a sacred community, we are aware of our moral and religious responsibilities and believe it is necessary to do our part to keep our community safe and slow the spread of the coronavirus. Many schools have announced closings for a minimum of two weeks and many businesses are doing the same. After serious consideration, for the next two weeks we have decided to suspend worship services and all programs that take place at The Temple,” read a letter sent by its religious and lay leaders.
And at Ohr HaTorah. “It is with a very heavy heart that after agonizing for hours over this decision with numerous consultations, I have decided to close the shul for services and other activities for the time being beginning this Shabbat until further notice. This was a very difficult decision but ultimately I think the right one. … These are unprecedented times which lead to this unprecedented action. As I often say what makes a shul special is that it operates 365 days a year – never taking off for a single prayer service. It pains me to think of our shul empty from Teffilot to Hashem. Nevertheless this is what I believe Hashem wants from us at this time,” Rabbi Adam Starr wrote on the congregation website.
And at the Ahavath Achim Synagogue. “After having evaluated the latest information available, as well as the responses from various agencies and stakeholders, we have reached the difficult decision to cancel all in-person programs, meetings, family and youth activities etc. over the next week. To that end our building will be closed with immediate effect for at least the coming week. We will continue to monitor the situation and make decisions based on the latest information as to the potential ongoing closure of our facility,” though services will be livestreamed, according to a notice from Ahavath Achim’s executive director Barry Herman on the synagogue’s website.
The doors also will be closed until further notice beginning March 16 at Jewish Family & Career Services’ Dunwoody campus, its Cobb County office, and the Ben Massell Dental Clinic. “We’re here to help our community in these challenging times. Telehealth options are now available for our current and new clients in counseling and older adult services,” reads a notice on the JF&CS website.
The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum will remain closed from Monday, March 16, through at least Friday, March 20. Leslie Gordon, the Breman Museum’s executive director, said the museum plans to post content on its website throughout the closure and also is creating lesson plans for teachers, drawing from its series of Holocaust survivor speakers.
The largest communal organization, the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, has shifted some operations away from The Selig Center, with staff working remotely. “To be clear, we are not closing Federation – a Federation’s work never stops! Like so many of our communal organizations, we will just be working differently,” Eric Robbins, Federation CEO and president, wrote in a public notice.
According to an internal email, all Federation events scheduled through the end of April are to be postponed and outside groups that have rented The Selig Center will be contacted to discuss their plans. Online meetings are preferred, while any in-person meeting will be capped at 20 participants and, even then the guidance to staff was, “Please use discretion.” All work-related travel through April was to be canceled.
The Federation has created a web page, https://jewishatlanta.org/covid19-resources/, with resources available to the community. Among them, Jewish Home Life is prepared to assist the elderly with various services.
Parents with children home from school can turn to the PJ Library for books. The Prizmah Knowledge Center has created a COVID-19 guidance page.
Prizmah also will assist Jewish day schools that plan virtual, rather than in-person learning. One such school is The Epstein School, which canceled classes on March 13 and will move to digital learning platforms starting March 16. The Weber School announced it will be closed to students on March 16 and 17 and may transition to online learning thereafter.
The Epstein School canceled its seventh grade trip to Washington, D.C., scheduled for late March, and April’s eighth grade trip to Israel may be lost to Israel’s efforts to halt the spread of coronavirus. That would be regrettable because the Israel trip is “a compelling experience for our students, which we also consider an essential part of their Epstein experience,” Abusch-Magder said.
The number of congregations livestreaming services has increased in response to the coronavirus.
Congregation Bet Haverim, which provided members with a link to watch services this past Shabbat, may move to online-only services in the future. “If this is the case, we may look for a minyan of people who are willing to be in the room together at CBH during the livestream,” Rabbi Josh Lesser wrote to the congregation.
“Those who may be sick and those who are vulnerable to infection should watch the livestream from home. Even beyond this, if you don’t have a specific role, a direct connection with the family, or a ritual reason to be there (like saying Kaddish), we ask you to stay home so that we can better ensure the safety of the people who need to be there,” Lesser wrote, also excusing b’nai mitzvah students from their service requirements for the time being.
Congregation B’nai Torah planned to begin livestreaming with its Friday night service March 13. “Rabbi [Joshua] Heller has been part of crafting the Conservative Movement’s guidance on streaming of services which states that one may participate in a service via livestream provided that a minyan of Jews is present with the leader, and that one should do so in ways that minimize violations of Shabbat,” a statement on its website read.
Religious services at B’nai Torah, including the daily minyan, will continue “as long as our advisors and government authorities indicate that we can do so safely.” Services will be held in an expanded sanctuary “and we ask family groups to sit at least 6 feet apart from other families. After this Shabbat, we may actively limit the number of live attendees on Shabbat, and we will roll out a system to do so.”
Over a period of several days, a diverse collection of community events were canceled “out of an abundance of caution.” Among them were the March 12-15 “spring showcase” of the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, the March 15 Hunger Walk Run to benefit the Atlanta Community Food Bank, the Anti-Defamation League’s March 15 Jurisprudence Luncheon, the March 15 “Bearing Witness: Unforgettable Stories from the Holocaust” program at The Breman Museum, the Atlanta Scholars Kollel’s “Tribute 2020” at the Atlanta History Center, and the March 19 annual Tenenbaum Lecture sponsored by the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University.
Heading into Passover, which begins at sunset April 8, the annual Hunger Seder sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta has been canceled, though an online version may be created as a replacement. Congregation Bet Haverim also canceled its annual community seder.
The AJT reported recently on how the coronavirus was just one more factor for Lauren Menis to consider as she planned her daughter Sarah’s upcoming bat mitzvah at Temple Emanu-El. On top of the usual stress that goes into practicing for a bat mitzvah, Sarah had the added pressure of learning to speak into a video camera so that those unable to travel could view the service. In the end, the bat mitzvah is being rescheduled. “It’s supposed to be a joyous occasion when she’s surrounded by family,” Lauren Menis said. “It’ll be much better to have everyone there.”
- David Abusch-Magder
- The Epstein School
- congregation etz chaim
- Rabbi Daniel Dorsch
- Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta
- Marcus JCC
- Jared Powers
- Ohr HaTorah
- The Temple
- Ahavath Achim Synagogue
- Jewish Family & Career Services
- Ben Massell Dental Clinic
- The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum
- Leslie Gordon
- jewish federation of greater atlanta
- Eric Robbins
- The Selig Center
- Jewish Home Life
- PJ Library
- Congregation Bet Haverim
- Rabbi Josh Lesser
- Congregation B'nai Torah
- Atlanta Jewish Music Festival
- Temple Emanu-El
- Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta