Last Friday, I stood in the Alyth [North Western Reform Synagogue] beit tefillah — which in a normal week would have 300 people in it for erev Shabbat — to lead a service to an empty room.
In the corner of my eye was a monitor, showing members of the community joining from their homes.
I could see families crowded around their computer screens; couples holding hands; people sat alone. After the service ended, many stayed online, waving to one another.
It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
At the end of an extraordinarily challenging week, I watched and wept at the sight of our community gathering and being there for each other in a way different to ever before.
It is impossible to know exactly how many joined over Shabbat, though we know many hundreds were with us.
In response, we have upgraded our capacity to enable 1,000 computers to join for future Shabbat services, knowing that these moments of gathering are going to be more important than ever.
This is just one of the ways the coronavirus pandemic has forced us to reimagine our synagogue life.
Over the past week, we have enabled our staff team to work from home; set up new communications and care-lines; begun to convert our regular prayer, learning and community activities for adults, families and children online. We have started to develop new programmes to enable members to gather in different ways, empowering them to start their own groups using our technology.
We are working remotely with bnei mitzvah, who will now read Torah for the first time with their community online. We know this is going to be a long journey so are working to ensure that what we offer is sustainable and uplifting as we move further into this difficult period.
Alongside all of this, we are prioritising care and responsive support for members. An amazing 200 members of our community volunteered within 48 hours and we have begun to phone all our members over the age of 80 and those we know have other needs.
The practical challenges of an effort of this scale are huge. Our main task is to identify and support members who cannot access our online programmes, as well as providing urgent pastoral care as we accompany our members through hospitalisation and illness.
Speaking to colleagues, I know that Alyth’s story, though it may be different in scale, is far from unique. Synagogues across the country are transforming to respond to our new reality. We have had just one week to build new models of care and learn how to make this new communal life possible.
Together rabbis, professionals and volunteers are striving to ensure that the joy of Jewish life and the support of community flourish in these extraordinary times.
Rabbi Josh Levy is minister of Alyth in Golders Green