Coffee, Covid, Congregations: Blog by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

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An old Turkish proverb states: “My heart wants neither coffee nor coffeehouse; my heart wants a friend, coffee is an excuse.” We all seek a social texture for our lives…friends, community, a sense of belonging and continuity.

We drink coffee together not because we want coffee but because we want sociability. We want a friend with whom we can talk. We want a peaceful respite from a noisy world.

During the covid 19 pandemic, it has been almost impossible to maintain normal, healthy socializing. We find ourselves more isolated. When we go out we wear masks, keep distance from others, avoid large groups. Yet, we want to stay in touch with family and friends; we very much want to enjoy being part of a community. We can communicate by phone or email or whatsapp or zoom etc.…and these are genuine blessings. But wouldn’t it be nice to sit down together for a nice cup of coffee, and just be natural and comfortable without fear of covid 19?

I am in touch with many rabbinic colleagues from around the U.S. and beyond; they struggle not only with their own particular situation and needs, but with their responsibilities towards their entire communities. How can members of the synagogue feel connected with each other and with the congregation? What can be done to foster a sense of community?

A special thanks and blessing go to those rabbis who have taken the trouble to call congregants, to maintain personal relationships, to reach out to those who are alone and isolated, to offer help to those who are in need. 

I recently heard from a widow, who has been a member of her synagogue for many years. Her late husband was very active in the congregation and worked tirelessly for it. She, too, has been an active member and a regular worshiper at Shabbat morning services. Since the pandemic broke out in March, she obviously hasn’t been able to attend services since the synagogue had to stop holding services. She has been pretty much alone, except for family and a few good friends. During all the months of the pandemic, the synagogue rabbi did not call her even once to check up on her, to say hello, to demonstrate loyalty to a long-time congregant…a widow living alone. She finally contacted the rabbi to express her profound disappointment.

She did not want a cup of coffee. She wanted to feel that her life mattered to her rabbi and her community. She wanted to feel that all her and her husband’s years of service and support of the synagogue actually meant something to someone, at least to the rabbi.

It is difficult to maintain a sense of connectedness and belonging during a time of pandemic and social distancing. It will be especially difficult during the upcoming period of holy days, when many will be unable to attend services. And if synagogues are able to hold services, they will necessarily be curtailed, socially distanced, more impersonal, with little or no opportunity of socialization.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the future of our synagogues. Will people drop their memberships? Will they stop contributing? I suspect that part of the answer will depend on whether the synagogue meant anything to members during the pandemic. Did the rabbi or any other officials of the congregation stay in touch? Did they reach out to them personally, not just via a zoom class? Did they email them, inquire about them? Did they show genuine concern for their wellbeing?

I know that many rabbis and synagogue leaders have done wonderful work during this trying time. I know how difficult it is to try to maintain a community when it’s impossible for people to actually get together face to face.

It’s important for all of us—not just synagogue rabbis and leaders—to work to maintain a sense of community and connectedness.  It may not be so simple these days to sit down together for a cup of coffee, but it isn’t so complicated to make a phone call, send an email, share a joke…to let others know that we care, that they matter to us.

We pray that this pandemic will come to a speedy and healthy conclusion. We pray that those who are ill will be healed. We pray for a vaccine that will bring the pandemic fully under control.

We look forward to getting together with family and friends and fellow congregants…for happy times, in good health and happiness…with a nice cup of coffee!