Building Jewish Communities During a Worldwide Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic struck each and every community throughout the world. The scope of Ohr Torah Stone’s global emissary network meant that OTS alumni and emissaries were in the forefront of helping people worldwide face the new and frightening challenge.
Ohr Torah Stone has a special ability to provide emotional support, Jewish engagement and connection through emissaries in Jewish communities throughout the world.
Rabbi Noam Hertig grew up in Zurich, Switzerland. Impressed with the leadership he showed while working in various roles, in particular with local youth, the Jewish community explored his interest in studying towards rabbinical ordination in Israel and then returning to serve the community where he grew up. After researching various rabbinical schools, it became clear that OTS’s Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary offered the best option.
“I was excited about the opportunity to study at Ohr Torah Stone,” says Rabbi Hertig, who was ordained through the Straus Seminary’s Torat Yosef kollel, and received practical rabbinic tools from the Straus-Amiel Rabbinical Emissary Program. “A rabbi needs to know the texts, but also needs tools and guidance to be a community leader. Ohr Torah Stone offered both.”
Rabbi Hertig returned to Zurich in 2015 to become the Assistant Rabbi of a diverse community of 2,600 Jews ranging in Jewish practice from secular to Modern Orthodox. In 2017 he was appointed Community Rabbi. He has had to be particularly responsive to community needs in recent months since the coronavirus crisis began.
“What we do as rabbis and community leaders in our daily work and lives is the opposite of social distancing. We are involved in outreach work, trying to bring people closer, visiting the sick and the elderly. All of our work had to change dramatically, and we adapted very quickly.”
Since before Purim, Rabbi Hertig has been fielding a host of new questions related to celebrating holidays and commemorating lifecycle events. “By Purim, we were already making adaptions, including live-streaming the megilla reading, which older and more vulnerable people really appreciated. New questions since then have related to concerns about burying loved ones, saying kaddish, and celebrating lifecycle events. I am already considering the many questions that will arise once I am able to reopen the synagogue. The Straus-Amiel staff has been in constant contact and Rabbi Brander and Rabbi Birnbaum, in particular, have provided invaluable guidance on a host of new halakhic issues.”
Among the many adaptations was the introduction of weekly online pre-Shabbat Kabbalat Shabbat programs and havdala on Saturday evening. “People frequently share that it’s the highlight of their week,” says Hertig. ” I think that when the crisis is behind us, we may see many more people in synagogue than before.”
Madeline, a member of the Zurich Jewish community says, “Rabbi Hertig is giving us so much during this very difficult time, finding a way to keep us close in every way possible. It is truly ‘living, practicing’ Judaism.”
“We are so fortunate to have you here”
In many small, remote communities, the OTS emissaries are the address for Jewish connection and emotional support. Today, they conduct their work through online classes and activities for all ages, as well as providing guidance and comfort by phone.
“When people hear I’m in Argentina, they compare it to New York,” says Rabbi Strul. “However, our community is small and far from everything — a two-hour flight from the capital, Buenos Aires. We have about 50 active families, including people of all ages, from young children through the elderly. We are there for everyone.”
While Rabbi Strul serves as a rabbi, Batya is the principal of the local Jewish afternoon school. Together, they run programs for teens and young adults. “We believe our role here is even more important now,” they say. “Because the public schools are not in session and people are craving routine, we have increased our online religious school hours. We now provide classes online daily, rather, than the three times a week that we typically meet. And the activities we’ve been running for teens and young adults online have more participants than ever, even attracting people who are more removed religiously.”
As they marked the one-year anniversary since their arrival in Argentina, the Struls received the following thank you note, “Since you arrived, you have won all of our hearts and done an exceptional job in our community. We are so fortunate to have you here. We look forward to continuing to watch your family grow as we enjoy the fruits of your work.”
According to Rabbi Strul, “Our success is a credit to the training we received in OTS training programs and to the staff’s continued guidance and support through this challenging time.”