By Louise Rachlis for Temple Israel
We put our chairs inside the orange circles, and spread out across the backyard of the Bayit, the house next door to Temple Israel.
It was Temple’s second outdoor service, on July 24, where the “best seats in the house” are in the shade.
Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg and Larry Tarof led the “spiritual worship surrounded by nature.” We followed along on the one-time use service sheets.
Participants were asked to bring a mask and a folding chair or a mat on which to sit. Everyone had to register beforehand with the Temple office.
While the initial Temple e-mail cautioned “these services are not for everyone,” Rabbi Mikelberg noted more recently that “as we enter a new phase of comfort, the safety committee is making every effort to be able to expand the reach.”
The services are streamed on Facebook Live as well.
The Bayit backyard has a physically-distanced capacity for about 15 family groups of one to four people. Services are described as “short and definitely sweet” – starting at 6:15 pm and ending at 7.
The Temple and its washrooms aren’t open, and everyone must wear a mask at all times, and attendees must use the hand sanitizer provided at the entrance before entering the area.
The ushers and the rabbi control the departure, maintaining a two-metre distance.
“The services take me back 25 years to my days as a camp counsellor,” says Rabbi Mikelberg. “It’s truly lovely to pray outside, surrounding oneself with the holiness of nature. We can let go of our formalities, it’s okay if we wear shorts and sit on the ground. It’s been great to reconnect in person – we’ll never again take for granted even a simple smile.”
Over recent months, “one of the most difficult things has been comforting mourners,” the rabbi says. “But in this outdoor setting, we’re able to welcome the bereaved to their spiritual home and get closer to offering the type of love that as Jews we’re known for.”
He says that as a leader, it has been very difficult “praying alone on my screen. It’s been very powerful to return to in-person worship. I now know it’s not just me following along.”
The response from “outdoor” congregants has been very positive.
Nevertheless, for a host of reasons, Rabbi Mikelberg has stated that Temple’s High Holy Days experience will be virtual, filmed indoors in the Temple sanctuary.
“No doubt we’ll carry memories of recent months including our outdoor worship. This is a journey. I pray the most difficult parts are behind us. We’ll carry every element of the journey with us as we go into 5781.”
All the outdoor service participants have been diligent about wearing masks and distancing.
“We pride ourselves in Judaism in recognizing it’s not just about me,” says Rabbi Mikelberg. “People have been meticulous about safety preparations recognizing that ‘my actions impact one and all.’ We get to live our values with enthusiasm and care.”
In these challenging times of social distancing, the older members of Temple Israel are – like vulnerable members of some other congregations – being encouraged to attend religious services virtually via Zoom rather than in person.
That leaves a demand for Torah readers and ushers for in-person services, positions which are frequently filled by members of the congregation over age 65.
Several younger members of Temple Israel have already stepped up to fill that void – and more are needed and encouraged to come on board.
“We are delighted to welcome the helping hands and active input of our younger generation in building up our community,” says Temple President Margot Montgomery.
“There are so many ways to give,” she says, “including sharing technology expertise, staffing a camera for our virtual services filmed in the sanctuary, reading the Haftarah portion in English or Hebrew, offering to share a skill or passion on a video or Zoom session, taking on a task to prepare for our fall High Holy Days for which we have many ideas but fewer willing volunteers! As sage Hillel the Elder says: “If not now, when?”
“There are 14 regular volunteer Torah readers at Temple Israel,” says Temple Israel Religious School Principal Sue Potechin, who herself volunteers as a Torah reader. “About half of those are under age 65.”
New volunteers “are always welcome and encouraged to join us,” she says. “If anyone is interested in learning how to leyn (chant Torah), I’m always happy to help out any way I can,” including practice runs and recordings of the reading.
Rabbi Mikelberg notes that a number of blessings have emerged from the COVID-19 crisis, and one is the response of the younger generation.
“It’s been remarkable to witness our younger community stepping up to help at Temple as best they can. Temple ushers tend to be young at heart – at our first service we had a keen 12-year-old ready to assist. We have many other younger participants as well, some discovering their spiritual needs for the first time. It does pain me that we’ve initially had to ask our older friends to hold back, but we are making every effort to safely welcome them soon!”
Photo: Ranit Braun streams Temple Israel’s outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat service with Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg and music leader Larry Tarof on Facebook Live, July 24.