How East London community is warming to the virtual world

Rabbi Richard Jacobi writes on the heartwarming response of his Liberal shul's membership


The announcement of the lockdown fired the starting gun on a wide range of rapid responses within the East London and Essex Liberal Synagogue (ELELS), whose motto is now: “Our building may be closed, but our community is very much open”.

We immediately identified that every member of our community could be affected in ways ranging from minor to life-limiting. Which age groups would cope better than others?

Who had physical or mental health problems we weren’t aware of that this crisis could exacerbate? We couldn’t know.

We resolved to phone every household and have done so, often twice or more, over the past month.

More than 50 members volunteered to be callers. A further 30 have been involved in the follow-up — shopping, delivering medicines, running a daily Zoom chat, or giving vital technical support.

In total, more than one-in-six of our members are now volunteering in some form to help our community come through this crisis together.

Attendances for our virtual services have been consistently higher than for the in-person ones pre-crisis, possibly because people are anxious and feel the need for community.

It’s also entirely possible that the rise is down to the lack of competing activities elsewhere during the lockdown!

It is certainly the case that the joy of greeting each other, of seeing friends’ faces, and of making kiddush is important. When we all lit candles in our homes and could see 30 or more sets on the screen, it brought to mind the iconic scene from Fiddler on the Roof.

Our adult learning had already moved online before lockdown and continues in that mode. Our cheder rapidly followed.

The first weekend, we realised that the children seeing each other and chatting was as important as anything they learned. We now build in time for both.

Then there are the social activities for adults — from breakout Zoom discussion rooms during services to our popular weekly quiz.

Yes, we have had Covid-19 deaths and they are additionally upsetting in so many ways. Our policy of not allowing any mourners at the funerals is being understood by all. The funerals are proving hugely meaningful — respectful to the person who has died and supporting the mourners. And that support is ongoing by rabbis and volunteers.

Our members say they are prouder of their synagogue than ever before, which is lovely to hear. All those who are volunteering have taken a degree of control and feel better as a consequence. We will bring everyone possible through this crisis and into the future.


Rabbi Richard Jacobi is minister at ELELS and teaches future rabbis at Leo Baeck College



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