Local Non-Profit Update: Jewish Community Project

I’ve never written much about religion — here or elsewhere — but after Lower Manhattan Community Church sent word about its online services and prayer sessions, and Tamid mentioned that its teens were sponsoring a remote walkathon for hunger, I wondered how something like a church or a synagogue, which is all about gathering and reaching out and communing, was handling the COVID era. These institutions are also neighborhood non-profits, and at least in one case — the Jewish Community Project on Duane — also a storefront that lights up our streetscape.

So I sent one email and the rabbis at JCP had an immediate answer:

“It isn’t that unusual for us to be quote-unquote remote,” said Andy Bachman, the rabbi and executive director. He’s talking about Jewish history of course, but it really does seem relevant now, especially for this neighborhood which is experiencing its own diaspora of sorts. “Jews for centuries have become very adept at dealing with dislocation. We have an inherently adaptive culture. We don’t rely on a cathedral. It’s a very home-based tradition.”

So in a way, our new tech era of Zoom calls and Google meets has allowed some of their traditions and services to have greater reach. The rabbis have hosted Zoom shivas and Zoom bar mitzvahs, Zoom baby naming ceremonies and even Zoom funerals, with people from all over the world.

“The lifecycle ceremonies have been incredibly uplifting and amazing,” said Deena Gottlieb, who’s been at JCP for two years as the director of Jewish life but was just ordained last month — on Zoom. “All the pride of the family, the pride of the community, the excitement of the child — that all comes through.”

There’s been some Zoom fatigue, especially for the little ones in their pre-school. But there has also been a discussion of how this could change things moving forward — what they will welcome back in person, and what features they will want to keep online as a community. Allowing family members to join services from places afar has only been a positive. Andy was Hillel director at NYU during 9/11, when movement around the city was even more restricted. With this crisis, while we were locked in our homes, we were able to communicate. The rabbis had one congregant who moved to Dallas, whose father died in Detroit, and family from all over the country was able to come together for the shiva.

Afterwards Andy went for a walk with the nephew, who noted he had never seen his whole family able to gather like that. “It almost heightens the power of the rituals themselves.”

There is another concern — the financial health of the institution, which has its own rent to pay. The congregation hosted an emergency fundraiser to cover costs for now, but the biggest question is what fall will look like, since early education is a big part of their program. They know they will lose some families, and just hope it is not too many.

Both rabbis know it’s easy to drift apart, and to miss connection, even if you can’t put your finger on just what’s missing. They have been emailing and calling their congregants as a result, and encouraging peers to do the same. They have added yizkor services — or remembrance services — which the center traditionally only held at Yom Kippur. But it’s not the same. The distance, they said, has shown people in many cases how much they need each other. And that’s where their hope for all of us lies.

“People are craving to be together,” said Andy. “We do need other humans. And I hope we will be able to deepen our connections with each other as a result. I sense that people really want to be back together again.”