Shul in the Time of COVID

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, April 30, 2020

Dear Solel,

We are living in unprecedented times. Covid-19 has brought the world as we know it to a standstill in many respects, and has forced us to adapt quickly to different ways of daily life. And yet, there is much in our tradition that gives us guidance, wisdom, and hope. We need only look to the current book of Torah, Vayikra -Leviticus, to find descriptions of disease, physical isolation, and the power of communal support even from a distance. This year, the book of Torah that we often find most challenging to our modern sensibilities, seems to be especially resonant. Our ancestors and our rabbinic tradition offer us strength and direction in the midst of the unique and challenging circumstances that the Covid-19 pandemic has created. I find that strength and direction most especially present in the guideposts of observing Shabbat, daily prayer and study, and the path of mitzvot each and every day.

I am grateful for your virtual presence with me these past Shabbatot – now 7 weeks as of the Shabbat of May 1st-2nd – as we pray and sing together on our livestream at While your presence is virtual, it is very real to me, as I “see” you in my mind’s eye, sitting in your usual seats in the Solel sanctuary, and I do hear your voices in my ears as we sing. I hope you are enjoying your current seats on the couch or your favorite armchair at home, and something special for Shabbat oneg at home each week with your coffee or tea. A special thank you to Joel Brown for his tech-expertise, bringing us together each week for our Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat morning prayers, as well as all of the special services during the week of Pesach. And kol hakavod to our Torah chanters who “joined” us on the livestream for 1st and 7th day Pesach morning services. It was lovely to see your faces and hear you chant the verses of Torah for us through the magic of technology. We were fortunate to have our guest speaker, David Matlow, “join” us last Friday to share his collection of Herzl memorabilia as we commemorated Yom HaShoah and celebrated Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s 72nd birthday.

On the Zoom platform, our annual Solel 2nd Seder was a wonderful gathering of friends and our Solel family. Our Seder plates had some interesting substitutions for the symbols this year, but Passover was perhaps even more meaningful because of the unusual way in which we gathered together online. Our Solel Seder was enhanced by the beautiful contributions of our Bet Sefer students, who wrote stories, poems, and created beautiful artwork which I was able to share on my screen in the powerpoint Haggadah that I created for the Seder. Thank you to Nicole Hansen, who gathered the materials from students who contributed this year into a Haggadah template that we look forward to completing next year with more of our students’ creations. And a special thanks to my sons for their behind the scenes tech during our Zoom Seder, and to my family for making our Seder meal.

We’re continuing to gather together weekly for Bet Sefer Solel song sessions for our children and families with Ron Miller every Sunday at 2pm, and for the Solel Parents’ Lounge on Tuesday nights at 9pm and for the Solel Lunchbreak on Thursdays at 12noon. If you haven’t yet joined us for these Zoom gatherings, it is a great way to connect with your fellow Solelniks. We are offering support and connection to each other, hearing about what is going on in everyone’s life, and sharing ideas. Zoom has also made a stronger connection between Solel and Darchei Noam, our sister congregation in Ramat HaSharon, Israel. We have now hosted 2 online gatherings – one during Pesach, and one for Yom Haatzmaut, and look forward to our next gathering for Shavuot. It’s great to meet new friends and share what is going on here in the Jewish community here in Canada and in Israel.

Our connections to one another are also taking place in very meaningful ways – I, along with Arliene, Carol, and our board leadership are reaching out to connect with everyone through phone calls, volunteers have stepped up to deliver groceries and medicine, and a group is working on making masks, and bringing supports to our wider community. In these unusual times, the mitzvah of gemilut chasadim is even more important. While we are home, and physically distant, we are finding greater ways to connect.

These past weeks have been a crash course in virtual technology, in setting up home spaces to Zoom virtual programs and meetings, and in adapting to a different way of doing much of what we do. I am grateful for the sacred partnership that I have with our board and staff and for their support and leadership. As none of us have ever led synagogue through a pandemic before, we are building together as we navigate a new way forward in our many online meetings.

I have had many beautiful reminders of just how resilient we are and how much more
we are stronger together: As the chair of the Interfaith Council of Peel I had the honour of leading opening prayers on two calls with Mayor Bonnie Crombie and the City of Mississauga. 400 faith leaders shared how their communities of faith are joining together to support their communities and our city and region. Our Reform movement rabbis, cantors, educators and leadership have led many online meetings and gatherings for information, planning and support as we face this pandemic together as a Jewish community. Tech experts are sharing tips for unfamiliar technology, how to manage a Zoom room and how to optimize music for online gatherings. Educators are sharing best practices for engaging students. Fellow clergy are sharing wisdom for online gatherings and effective ways to navigate leading programs and services online. And we are using our collective wisdom in these sacred virtual spaces to lift each other up in prayer and in collaboration. While we do not yet know what the future after Covid-19 will look like, we are visioning together.

And amongst the reminders of resilience and strength, I am also hearing from you about the more difficult moments. Friends, this pandemic that we are living through is challenging. This feels hard because it is hard. It is alright if you just get up and make it through the day. Breathe. Take care of yourself and your soul. Take a walk, eat, call a friend. Please know that we are here to support you. We can find a time to talk, or to say a prayer, together on the phone or on a video call. I am reachable at the Solel phone number that now rings in my home, and via email. We are all in this together and we will get through this together.

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

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