When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Temple Israel in Bath Township knew it would have to mix creativity and technology with its current programming to be there for its congregants during the time of change.
The temple’s clergy and staff came together to create a new weekly calendar full of fresh ideas aimed to provide Temple Israel’s classic programming with new twists, Cantor Kathy Fromson said.
From Facebook Live sing-a-longs to Zoom prayer lessons to YouTube Shabbat services, Temple Israel didn’t let the pandemic diminish how it engaged its congregants, Fromson told the CJN.
CJN: How have you kept your congregants engaged during the pandemic?
Fromson: Every Tuesday at 10 a.m., we start out with my musical meditation, which I do in my home with either my guitar or on piano. It’s a compilation of different beautiful melodies of Jewish liturgy or compositions by up-and-coming singer/songwriters that will provide some comfort so people can get through their week.
On Wednesdays from noon to generally 1 p.m., we have what we call Lunch and Learn. ... I developed what I call the Prayer Packet, and it’s an abridged version of our Shabbat prayer book that has the most significant prayers of the Shabbat service so people are able to learn it.
On Fridays, aside from our Shabbat services which are virtual, I do what I call Wee Sing at 8:30 a.m. ... It’s a musical program for families with children under the age of five. ... I do all the songs myself with my guitar.
Rabbi Josh Brown did a series called “Unpacking Orthodox,” where he talked about the Netflix show, “Unorthodox.” Our educator did a two-part series on the Netflix documentary, “Circus of Books.” She also did a cooking class.
Our administrator is going to do two how-to tutorials. The first is on Canva, which is a computer program ... and then the other will be on logging in for upcoming virtual programming and events.
We also developed our own YouTube channel (bit.ly/3gx87QK) so that people can watch our Shabbat services.
CJN: Why is it important to both the congregants and to you to provide this engagement?
Fromson: What’s wonderful about our Shabbat services is because they’re on Facebook Live (bit.ly/2PEt2FT), it allows people to connect through the Mi Shebeirach prayer or by writing a comment, because it’s so hard when we can’t see them. For them to have that connection with us, it makes them feel like they’re with us.
Having my fifth year here and having nobody in the sanctuary during services almost feels hypocritical to me, because I worked so hard to get here, to be with everybody and it’s my home away from home. To have your family – that’s how I think of (the congregants) – not physically with me, I have to have this connection. It’s just as important to me to have it, as important as it is for them to receive it.
CJN: Was it difficult for you to switch to a digital platform?
Fromson: Initially, it was very difficult, because neither Rabbi Brown or I were very familiar with Zoom. We had to become very familiar very quickly.
It was frustrating, because with Zoom, musically, that platform is very difficult. Unless you have a computer that can broadcast in stereo, if I sing with an instrument, my voice and my instrument are fighting for the same sound waves.
I was happy to be able to reach people, but it was very hard because I knew that the sound wasn’t adequate. I wasn’t in the same space with the rabbi, we really couldn’t see people and I kept losing calls due to my internet at home.
CJN: What have congregants’ reactions been to the virtual programming?
Fromson: They’re so thankful that it’s there. When we first went virtual, the rabbi, our entire board of trustees and I had a phone tree where we contacted every single congregant to find out how they were doing and their technology capabilities. We had to sometimes talk them through how to get on Facebook or our website.
Some of our congregants will host virtual watch parties with their grandchildren for programming like Wee Sing.
CJN: Could Temple Israel see more virtual programming after the pandemic ends?
Fromson: Absolutely, because I don’t know how long it’s going to take for the pandemic to end. ... We are purchasing multiple cameras to provide a variety of angles and what we call a switcher, which will allow people from home to be brought in on a screen that will seem like they’re seamlessly with us in services.
It’s unfortunate that we have to almost look at our Shabbat services like producing a TV show. But we have to do that right now so we can provide the most real experience that people can have. I don’t see that going away any time soon.