Berkshire Rabbis Reflect on Their Work During the Coronavirus Crisis

The BJV asked rabbis from our local congregations to reflect on how they have responded to the coronavirus crisis - how their work and personal lives have changed, as well as what the future might hold for the Jewish Berkshires.


Photo: Rabbis at the annual Shabbat Across the Berkshires last January, Rabbi Liz Hirsch (far left), Rabbi Neil Hirsch (holding candle), and Rabbi David Weiner (far right).

On the Road Again...

By Rabbi Barbara Cohen / Congregation Ahavath Sholom (Great Barrington)

On this beautiful and sun-filled May morning, it is difficult to capture the magnitude of the emotional and practical life changes that have taken place in our personal and communal worlds since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. Physical and social distancing, new concepts for us in our lives, are for many of us antithetical to our way of being. Our congregational lives have also have been altered in ways we surely disdained months ago…Zoom services, NO WAY!!! Seeing each other for one-on-ones and small group gatherings on a screen bound by little boxes, not able to hug a greeting in our sweet shul building on a Shabbat morning…no hugs at all? Nightmare-ish!!!

And yet, this is where we are. Gladly signing into Zoom (or something like it) to meet up for just about everything in our daily existence that involves more than the people we may live with or have decided we can’t live without. We may venture out to the supermarket, masked and gloved, hand sanitizer waiting for us in the car, the welcome coolness mildly assuring us that we can eradicate any bit of virus that we may have picked up along the route from produce to dairy and out the no-touch exit door.

At Ahavath Sholom, we are making our way through this new wilderness with the resilience and courage of our ancestors and honestly, our share of grumbling. Like them and all of us, we have no real idea where this is going and for how long. We have adapted to the new technology for everything that we do as a community. Board meetings, coffee hours, study sessions, services, and upcoming annual meetings and…okay, I’ll say it…probably the High Holy Days, too.

Personally, these challenges are calling for a new level of creativity, sensitivity, and spaciousness in my previously curated and familiar paths of being…as a rabbi, a friend, a (grand)parent, a sister, a daughter of a declining 95-year-old mother in assisted living that I can only right now visit through her living room window.

I think about how many roles I might fulfill in the course of one day… including, importantly, being a caring and considerate stranger. How much more and different effort do I now need to put into my relied upon intuitive ‘reading’ of another person when I may only have their eyes to offer me insight into how they are or a truncated image of them in the gallery view box on my computer?

I also experience the loss of the blessing of the energy exchange between me and another or the congregation…that wonderful flow that fills and joins us with warmth and spirit as we sing, pray and share our thoughts and feelings. And… not but… I am, and the rest of us are, forging new paths. Like the Israelites, we cannot go back by the old routes.

We must find ‘work arounds’, listen and watch for signs signaling when it is safe and right to move forward, stay nimble and above all, help each other through this with compassion, patience, strength, and the commitment to not let this crisis rob us of our highest ideals and values…otherwise, we will have truly lost our way for good.

Finding Integration and Balance Though All the Lines are Blurrier

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat / Congregation Beth Israel (North Adams)

Life during the pandemic has new rhythms. I'm learning a new balancing act: how to serve the northern Berkshire Jewish community while also homeschooling my ten-year-old son.

Shul-wise, my days include Zoom teaching, Zoom-based pastoral care, Zoom services, and email conversations about what needs to happen before we can "re-open."

Parent-wise, I'm (re)learning about fractions and number lines. Sometimes we do "word work" from the workbook he brought home from school, and sometimes we create crossword puzzles using Scrabble tiles. I'm refamiliarizing myself with the Oregon Trail, and I'm reading a young adult novel by Bill Nye (the Science Guy) so we can discuss it.

My favorite homeschool activity has turned out to be making videos for my son's YouTube channel, in which we study Jessica Tamar Deutsch's beautiful graphic novel of Pirkei Avot together. That's a fun way to connect him with some Jewish learning. He loves making videos and sharing enthusiasms with others, and I love getting to introduce him to a foundational text of Jewish ethics in illustrated form.

Sometimes the start of homeschool is delayed because there's a pastoral need and the need can't wait. And sometimes my son gets extra time to play Minecraft in the evenings because I'm at a synagogue board meeting via Zoom.

Some things can be scheduled: meetings, adult education, services and meditation minyan that now happen over Zoom. And some things can't be scheduled: pastoral needs arise when they arise. Which means sometimes my congregants overhear me making requests like, "Ok, kiddo, can you work on your social studies while I take this call in my study, please?"

And sometimes a homeschool lesson gets paused because my kid has his own pastoral needs. It's not easy to lose access to friends, social contact, playdates, the classroom, recess, everything that was sweet about the fourth grade – especially when it's not clear what the summer will hold or what next year will be. This pandemic season is improving my capacity to help my son feel the grief and loss of this moment, and then access hope... which is often what the adults whom I serve need, too.

The lines between work-life and home-life are blurrier, because everything happens in the same space. The downsides of that are obvious: I can't leave work behind, and there is no longer a physical boundary between shul and home. But there are hidden upsides, too.

My dining room table shifts from being a fourth-grade classroom, to being the place where I study (and make videos about) Pirkei Avot with my son, to being our Shabbes table, to being the place where I lead Kabbalat Shabbat services over Zoom for the community. Ordinary space becomes holy space becomes ordinary space again, all depending on my kavanah (intention and heart.)

Now that we can't congregate in the synagogue, we have to build the Mishkan (the dwelling-place for God) in the places where we are: our homes, our dining tables, our computer screens. And we have to figure out how to integrate spiritual life and spiritual practice with ordinary life. The laundry, the dishes, the homeschooling are juxtaposed with the pastoral visits, the spiritual direction sessions, the Shabbat songs.

Then again, those things always were juxtaposed, even before the pandemic. In some ways, the work of this moment is the same as it ever was: integration and balance. Between parenthood and the rabbinate, between sacred and ordinary, between the homeschool classroom and the Shabbes table.

Honoring Our Dead and Comforting Our Neighbors During an Unprecedented Health Crisis

By Rabbi David Weiner / Knesset Israel (Pittsfield)

The pandemic and the measures we need to take to slow its spread have devastated Jewish practice and the spiritual life of our community. We have figured out how to pray and learn together over Zoom, and we can maintain some of the connections that bind the community together over the phone and with virtual events. We will make it through this challenging time, eventually, especially if we continue to support each other and the institutions that sustain our communities. However, many of the resources we would use to face any other sort of calamity or loss – social support, gathering in person, singing, even hugs – have simply evaporated.

Jewish practice is full of wisdom, and our approach to illness, death, and bereavement is comforting and effective. These days, we cannot safely tend to our deceased in the way we have for many centuries because the risks are too great. For that matter, ritual practices we used to take for granted – the sanctuary funeral, burial by the mourners at the cemetery, a supportive community gathering for shiva, a month or a year of kaddish – are not feasible. These rituals enfold mourners in love and support as they walk the path of grieving, exactly as envisioned by the psalms. The bereaved find that their walk through the valley of the shadow of death has been anything but lonely, for thou art with me. I guess we can livestream a funeral and Zoom a shiva. I can prepare a funeral with a bereaved family over a conference call. We have no choice. But we should not pretend that it is the same, that the internet can make up for what we cannot do. Grieving in solitude, without a community, is not the Jewish way.

I have now presided over too many tiny funerals. Before March, they only happened when someone really had no connections in the community. Now they have become routine. Though we keep our distance from each other, a tiny funeral is very intimate. I begin by speaking to the deceased, asking forgiveness for all the things we could not do on their behalf – the washing, the shrouding, the gathering of a community befitting their honor and legacy, the accompaniment of their family in their time of need. A short service follows, and then burial. The cemetery committee wear masks, lest they exhale on each other while lowering the casket. Everyone brings a shovel from home, lest the mitzvah of burial spread contagion. Emotions run high in these small funerals. It is hard to describe their intensity, yet it is deeply exhausting.

I should offer uplift at the end of such a reflection. All I can find the heart to say is this: When all this passes – when there is a vaccine or whatever it will take for us to reclaim our confidence to gather in safety to honor our dead and comfort our neighbors – I pray that we will recall that, once upon a time, we used to come together in person to celebrate and to grieve. And that we will remember that it is important, and comforting, to embrace.

May we know no more sorrow.

“Living in the ‘And’” - Speaking with honesty and honoring families’ emotional experience

 By Rabbi Jodie Gordon / Hevreh of Southern Berkshire (Great Barrington)

In the beginning of March, I attended a retreat for faith leaders at Kripalu. It was led by Maria Sirois, and over those two days, we focused on the ideas of spiritual wholeness and resilience in the face of adversity. The realities of COVID-19 were just beginning to show themselves: we washed our hands a bit more, looked at the news with worried curiosity. I don’t know that any of us imagined that months later, we would lead, pastor, teach, pray, and meet from the hastily constructed “office spaces” in our homes. These last eight weeks have been a crash course in flexibility, grace, and creativity. One of the prevailing lessons, still ringing in my ears from that retreat was the idea that to have hope, is to consistently “live in the ‘and.’”

To have hope is to hold multiple, competing truths simultaneously, and find ways of existing in the space between. To “live in the ‘and’” is a way of seeing our stress, or negative feelings, and to look for positive ways of moving through them.

Certainly, that has been true for us at Hevreh, and for the families we serve. Living in the “and” has been an act of cohabitation for me as a rabbi, exploring this new terrain together with our families and as a parent myself. The very first Sunday of the shutdown was meant to have been our Purim carnival, which our students had been looking forward to for weeks. And like the families we were notifying of cancelation, I wrestled with how to communicate with my own children, and help them manage their disappointment. I didn’t know this at the time, but this has been a recurrent theme of this experience: how to communicate hard realities lovingly, and to offer our children tools to manage their disappointment.  We did not know it at the time, but canceling the Purim carnival was only the first of missed milestones for our community, as we moved through Passover, and now, the end of the school year together without the usual markers and celebrations. From the very beginning, we have worked hard to model “living in the ‘and’” – speaking with honesty and honoring the emotional experience of our families.

One of the great blessings of this shutdown has been an affirmation of who our community is: from our teen madrikhim (teaching assistants), to our faculty, to our students, and their families, I have been blown away by the willingness to try something new, and to keep showing up. From the very beginning, I have been heartened by the way our families have met us in the middle, as we experimented with different ways to gather. For some of our teachers, Zoom and other digital platforms were the midbar —a new wilderness to navigate as they sought to connect with their students. For others, finding ways to distill significant learning into shorter, Zoom-appropriate length class gatherings forced their creative hands. Our teaching faculty has impressed me with their love, commitment, and talent for connecting with their students, even across a screen.  They have continued to show up as their full selves, working hard to impart new ways of finding joy in Jewish life, even as the sense of “oy” is there, and is real.

One final lesson of “living in the ‘and’” – hope is not only about holding multiple, competing truths at the same time, it’s also about having a sense of grounded optimism. So here is my “living in the and” statement: I miss seeing our community in person. I miss the chance to gather, to teach, to learn together. I miss the impact that our learning community has on my own family. And – I have great hope in the Jewish future, because of our Hevreh community.

An Invitation to Join a Summer Spiritual Physical Fitness Challenge

By Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch / Temple Anshe Amunim (Pittsfield)

This summer will be unlike any we have ever seen in the Berkshires. Our beloved arts and cultural events are canceled or virtual, and our typically chock-full schedules are looking more open than ever before. While the public health situation concerning COVID-19 continues to unfold, we know that we may not be able to gather in person in typical ways for some time.

In past summers, Temple Anshe Amunim of Pittsfield has welcomed all who are interested to join us for hikes, yoga, meditation, and more on Shabbat mornings. We call these experiential Shabbat gatherings Spiritual Physical Fitness, or SPF. We take advantage of the beauty of nature and the luxury of time, of pausing, of resting and reflecting that for many of us is an ideal way to spend Shabbat. In past years, we’ve hiked at Canoe Meadows, Parson’s Marsh, Olivia’s Overlook, and more. This summer, we were looking forward to adding opportunities to run and bike together, and to do yoga in our backyard.

We’re inspired by the many ways that organizations and individuals are adapting to change in these challenging times. We also understand that even if we cannot physically gather for an event, we can still be united in other ways. We have drawn strength from our virtual Shabbat services, Torah study, and classes. We subscribe to thought-leader Priya Parker’s sentiment that we can be Together Apart. Separated by distance, we can either join in a synchronous group experience, or we can do the same thing at a different time, asynchronously.

To that end, we’re pleased to invite the community to join us for a Summer Spiritual Physical Challenge for the month of July. Throughout the month, we’ll encourage all those participating in the challenge from all over the county to set a goal to get out in nature, to look inward, to do an embodied activity that enables connection to spirituality and reflection.

Everyone’s spiritual practices look different. You may decide to participate in the Spiritual Physical Fitness Challenge by hiking a new trail every Shabbat morning. You may commit to meditating for 10 minutes each day. You may be a spiritual gardener, finding meaning by tilling and tending the earth. We will be offering a wide range of suggested activities that would fulfill the intent of the Spiritual Physical Fitness Challenge.

By July, we may be able to gather for socially distant outdoor activities. If it is safe to do so, we’ll announce where and how to safely meet up and participate in a Spiritual Physical Fitness Challenge together. And if personal or public permissions prove otherwise, we’ll encourage you to participate in these activities individually or in small family groups, and to use photos, journaling, and social media to document and share your experience.

We find that participating in a group challenge like this has the benefits of connecting us with those beyond ourselves, and in holding ourselves accountable. Even when we are separated, together, we are greater than the sum of our parts.

If this low-commitment, high-impact challenge sounds intriguing to you, we invite you to join us for our SPF Challenge launch at our Shabbat services on Friday, June 26. You’ll also be able to sign up and count yourself into the challenge via our webpage, The challenge will continue for the month of July, and we’ll share and celebrate our successes at Shabbat services on July 31.

As we learn from Martin Buber, “all journeys have a secret destination, of which the traveler is often unaware.” We invite you to take this journey with us.

Join the SPF via and be sure to check for up-to-date information about the event.