(JTA) — This is how Jason Nevarez thought starting his new job as senior rabbi of San Diego’s Congregation Beth Israel would go: He and his wife would fly out this spring from their home in suburban New York to house hunt. He’d spend the summer holding face-to-face meetings with colleagues and congregants. Then he’d pick up his children from camp and introduce them to their new community.
This is how it has gone: With camp canceled and cross-country air travel inadvisable, Nevarez, 43, took a nine-day road trip with his family to their new home in a rented RV, only to divide his time between a home purchased sight unseen and an office in a mostly empty synagogue building.
He’s now getting to know his new congregants in exactly the same way he said goodbye to his old ones: virtually. There’s a silver lining: Nevarez had already started joining Beth Israel’s events this spring, even though he was physically nearly 3,000 miles away.
“COVID has made it really hard and nuanced and challenging,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about his first days on the job. “That said … when I came in it wasn’t like ‘Who’s this guy?’ — the community knew me already.”
Such is the story for new rabbis and their congregations across the United States right now. July 1, the most common start date for rabbinic jobs, came as the country grappled with an explosion of coronavirus cases. Instead of attending welcome barbecues and hosting Shabbat dinners, new rabbis are making tough decisions about whether to hold in-person services and preparing for a High Holiday season like no other.
Some are staying put for now in their old homes, working virtually in a role that no one could ever have conceived of doing remotely until just a few weeks ago. Others, such as Nevarez, are moving into homes they had never seen before. And all are struggling to get to know their new congregants virtually or via socially distanced meetings at a time when personal connection is desperately needed.
The rabbinic hiring season usually ends by early spring, so rabbis and graduating rabbinical students were largely able to complete interviews and in-person Shabbat visits before the pandemic closed synagogues and ground travel to a halt. All but one of 22 graduates of the Reform movement’s flagship seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, landed jobs this year, according to Rabbi Dvora Weisberg, the seminary’s director.
“We don’t know what things are going to be like going forward into the next year because we don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think that in terms of this past class we were really lucky, and as a result it didn’t impact their job search,” Weisberg said. “Although I’m sure, of course, it’s going to impact the experience they have in the first year of the job.”
JTA spoke to four rabbis from each of the major Jewish denominations to hear about what starting a new job was like for them during this time.
Trying to get to know congregants without “schmooze time”
Rabbi Lauren Henderson remembers flying down to Georgia together with her husband from their home in Chicago to interview for a job at Congregation Or Hadash, a Conservative synagogue located in Sandy Springs, outside Atlanta.
“It was amazing. It just felt bashert,” she recalled about the community whose founding rabbis, a married couple, planned to move to Israel this summer.
So when the coronavirus pandemic started spreading rapidly just weeks later, and synagogues across the country started shutting down, Henderson wasn’t fazed.
“Very few people at that point in March knew we would be in the same reality come July, so I thought, ‘OK, times are weird. This is really strange but certainly by July, we’ll be back to normal,’” the 32-year-old spiritual leader said.
But with things decidedly not returning to normal in late spring, Henderson and her husband abandoned plans to fly down to look at houses. Instead they decided to buy one they saw virtually with the help of a congregant who is a real estate agent.
In her new home since late June, Henderson has been inviting congregants who feel comfortable to come for socially distanced conversations on her porch to get acquainted. She also recorded a video from there introducing herself on her first day.
But Henderson misses the impromptu casual interactions that usually take place in the hallways of the synagogue building.
“It’s hard, just losing all the schmooze time, all the in-between stuff where the magic happens often, and all of that is kind of gone,” she said. “Every interaction is pre-planned or pre-scheduled.”
And with the pandemic upending much of regular synagogue life — like the community she left, Mishkan Chicago, Or Hadash has been hosting its services virtually since the middle of March — Henderson has found that advice she received at the Jewish Theological Seminary about starting a new job doesn’t always apply. Sometimes, she said, that’s a good thing.
“All the given wisdom that I received in school was, ‘OK, when you start a new job, especially when you’re following in the footsteps of beloved former leaders, don’t change anything for the first year. Keep it all the same. Your job is to just learn the community, learn their ways and then only after year two can you start to make your own mark,’” she said. “And now there are some things that can be adapted, but for the most part we’re all flying without a course charted, so everything must change.”
Blazing a new path after suffering searing losses
In a span of about a month this spring, Michael Perice found out that his rabbinical school graduation ceremony had been canceled due to the pandemic, the job for which he was the final candidate had its funding cut and his 92-year-old grandmother passed away after contracting COVID-19.
“I was feeling really down. I was feeling a little beaten,” he recalled. But, Perice said, “I knew that I had worked so hard and I had such a commitment and such a passion to find the right job and do this work that I spent six years of my life preparing for, so I couldn’t be deterred.”
Though Perice, 34, had for years envisioned himself working at a Hillel on a college campus, he realized he had to shift gears after the job he was on the verge of being offered at a large public university in the Southwest was eliminated amid a rapid-onset financial crisis.
So he started looking around for other types of rabbinic work and learned about Temple Sinai, a small Conservative congregation in the southern New Jersey town of Cinnaminson. Going through the interview process, which was all done virtually, made him rediscover the things that had appealed to him about pulpit work. It’s what he had wanted to pursue when he started his studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
“You get to see people of every age, of every demographic,” he said. “The full life cycle is accomplished in congregational life, and to be a part of people’s life in that way is such a privilege and honor, and I kind of forget that.”
After a month and a half of interviews, he accepted an offer to lead the congregation, which has 110 member households.
When Perice started the job last week, he was still living in Philadelphia. He has met his congregants only once — right before he started the job when he made the 40-minute drive to the congregation for a socially distanced Shabbat service held in the synagogue’s parking lot.
“It felt really good that every precaution was taken so I could meet some of them in person,” he said. “It felt like coming home in a sense, and standing up there with the shul in the background, because we were outside, it kind of felt like, ‘You know what, I am the rabbi of this community and it’s going to be really great.’”
Perice and his fiancee hope to move to Cinnaminson later this year, once it is safe to do so. Until then, Perice is holding virtual events and services from his home across the state line and phoning congregants to get to know them better.
“Normal synagogue life has just come to a halt,” he said, “so it’s going to take a while to get a feel for that.”
Re-creating normalcy through “kiddush to-go”
When he accepted a job as the rabbi of the BACH Jewish Center in Long Beach in January, Rabbi Benny Berlin was looking forward to getting to know members of the community by hosting them for Shabbat meals at his home.
Instead, he and his wife have been bringing challah to congregants’ houses — wearing masks and standing more than 6 feet apart.
“People were touched by it. It’s home-baked goods, and we had a personal letter for each person, and in this way we can’t have normal services … so instead we’re bringing the shul to them,” said Berlin, who started at the congregation on New York’s Long Island in the beginning of June.
Since last month, the Orthodox congregation, which has 100 member families, has been legally allowed to host services — but initially had to limit attendance to only 10 worshippers, who had to sign up on a first-come, first-serve basis. Now larger groups may attend, but everyone must wear a mask and keep distance.
On a recent Shabbat, Berlin, 30, organized “a kiddush to go” in which congregants picked up individually wrapped portion-size containers of kugel, cholent and kasha along with a small bottle of grape juice and a rugelach on their way out of services.
“What was really nice was at least I was able to stand by the door when people were leaving and I could say ‘hi’ and ‘Good Shabbos,’” he said.
Despite the fact that the synagogue is now able to host some services, Berlin said it’s not the same as before. For example, young children who are unable to keep social distancing are not permitted.
“Shul should be warm and welcoming for everybody, but now the only way to be warm and welcoming is if you’re able to maintain social distancing, and if you can’t, we have to ensure the safety of everybody,” the rabbi said. “I think that’s something that’s lost. There isn’t that same carefree feeling anymore in the synagogue.”
Still, Berlin said the current limitations have allowed him to connect deeply with congregants who are feeling isolated.
“My wife and I have been going down call lists of the elderly people that are by themselves at home and families, and we’ve been calling them and wishing them ‘Happy Birthday’ and telling them ‘It’s nice to meet you,’” he said. “Yes, it’s not a natural way. But the impact you can have is very deep.”
Grappling with whether to come together
In his first week at Congregation Beth Israel, which has 1,200 member families, Nevarez, the rabbi who made the road trip with his family from New York to California, found himself navigating a range of opinions from staff and congregants about whether certain meetings can be held in person, even with social distancing.
The congregation has been holding services online since March, but last month announced a plan to resume limited in-person prayer beginning in August, as long as it is safe. But rising cases in Southern California prompted the governor last week to ban singing at worship services.
“There’s no playbook,” Nevarez said. “You have governments saying one thing, you have states and local municipalities saying another, you have congregants all over the spectrum giving their opinions, and you have to trust your gut as to how you’re making decisions and how you’re going to move through this.”
He’s having to make those decisions without having met most of his congregants in person. Rather than spending his first week having lots of face-to-face interactions with staff and congregants, 90% of his meetings have taken place on Zoom, with a few socially distanced meetings taking place outdoors.
“There’s a sense of sadness,” Nevarez said. “What I envisioned in my mind is not going to be reality, that the — I call them punim-to-punim moments — the face-to-face moments are not possible.”
Still, the pandemic ended up bringing him closer to congregants in other ways. As the synagogue started hosting events virtually in the spring, Nevarez was able to attend services, Torah classes and meetings.
That meant that coming into the job, he was already a familiar face to many congregants.
“I’ve had an entree into the community for months now, which has made the transition a bit easier,” he said.