Brighton finds togetherness in isolation

'As people have not been able to come to shul, we have made sure that the shul comes to them'


Brighton and Hove Progressive congregant Michael Austin acknowledges that although the pandemic “has been terrible for the vulnerable and very elderly”, it has brought his own shul’s membership even closer together.

While its pastoral care network has maintained contact with those isolated or unable to join online events,virtual activities have allowed more flexibility. “One of our lay readers led a recent service from her home in Holland. We are planning for our High Holy-Day services and AGM to be held online.”

Mr Austin’s comments reflect the relatively smooth transition Brighton synagogues have made to serving their members since the lockdown, despite the high number of elderly among their ranks. And community leaders suggest that a number of the new offerings will be retained and developed once shuls reopen their doors.

Rabbi Hershel Radar of Brighton and Hove Hebrew Congregation told the JC that “as people have not been able to come to shul, we have made sure that the shul comes to them, via Zoom. We have seen members as well as guests who have not attended our activities on a regular basis before.

“Now the lockdown is easing, I think we will keep using the technology to further connect with people who may find it difficult to attend shul. I can well imagine our future Lunch and Learn meetings, for example, to include a mixture of physical presence and online attendees.”

At Brighton Lubavitch, Rabbi Pesach Efune reported that a list of people were called every week. “We also distribute a Shabbat package to around 40 elderly people.” Although most people seemed to be coping, “for some the loneliness is a real challenge”.

The local Reform community is also experiencing an increase in participants online. “We hold three Zoom services per day and there is always someone connecting,” Rabbi Andrea Zanardo said. But he noted that members of his community had found it “very painful not being allowed to be visited by grandchildren. You cannot cuddle babies via Zoom”

Rabbi Samuel de Beck Spitzer of Hove Hebrew Congregation said that although it was heartwarming to be able to reach many congregants through use of technology, he was acutely aware of the hardship endured by those stuck in their homes. The shul’s chair, Stanley Cohen, added that “to maintain a link with our members, we offer a weekly discussion group and Kabbalat Shabbat”. Having “introduced the internet to the community, I believe we will continue to provide a portal for Jewish education and virtual conversation and debate”.

In addition to online services, meetings, festival celebrations, adult study programmes and children’s activities, Brighton and Hove Progressive has also been using technology to connect with other congregations in the UK. This Shabbat, it will be joining forces with Finchley Progressive Synagogue, Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah explained.

Charlene Sinclair, who edits the synagogue’s weekly e-bulletin, benefits from the online activity. “I live out of town and so in an unexpected way I am finding myself taking part in many more shul activities than I would have been able to under more normal circumstances.’’

With most students having left Brighton with the closure of the universities, Chabad student chaplain Rabbi Zalman Lewis has found his work taking on a different focus, both online and by phone.

However, “for those unable to go home, we have been providing weekly Shabbat food packages. Our front door has been a collection point for many packages [and a venue for] words of encouragement and inspiration during the past couple of months.”

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