This article was produced as part of JTA’s Teen Journalism Fellowship, a program that works with Jewish teens around the world to report on issues that affect their lives.
(JTA) — Jordy Levy, 18, remembers sitting at the table with his family, enjoying a relaxed Shabbat dinner at his Atlanta home during the pandemic. There was no hassle of getting dressed up, no schlep to synagogue, just hanging out and spending time with his family. In the background, a Facebook livestream of his congregation’s Friday night services played.
This is a scene that has become largely familiar over the course of the pandemic. COVID-19 forced many synagogues to close their doors and move their services and programs to virtual platforms. Many synagogues saw overall engagement grow as a result of this shift.
And yet for many Jewish teens, Levy’s experience was the exception. The technology, which in some ways made connecting with synagogues more convenient, caused a loss of connection among teens that has lingered even now that most congregations are back in person.
“I know a lot of kids just stopped going to synagogue outright because with COVID-19 they were so used to not going,” said Jill Mankosky, 18, a member of the Conservative Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia. “This year when the High Holiday services were in person again, I noticed a lot of my classmates who would have been there previously pre-COVID-19 were just not there anymore.”
Congregations are now at a crossroads, determining which direction they want to move in next as the world slowly transitions away from the pandemic.
“Return back to normal is a bad way to phrase it because there is really no normal,” said Maya Kamenske, 16, a member of Agudas Achim.
Especially for Conservative congregations like Kamenske’s, the switch to online prayer was a significant one. In 2001, the Conservative movement’s Jewish law committee prohibited counting someone participating in an online manner towards the prayer quorum, or minyan needed for communal prayer. Virtual services initially breached this decision, although the ruling was soon amended to allow virtual Shabbat services during the pandemic.
Virtual services increased accessibility by making it simpler for people who would otherwise struggle to be at the congregation to still participate. For example, Jonah Golbus, 17, said that there were times when he was unable to find a ride to his synagogue, Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California. Now, he does not have to worry about that. Virtual services allow people more flexibility for participation, and can be squeezed more easily into schedules.
“Having [online] High Holiday services as an option for those who [either] can’t or don’t feel up to coming in person is a really good addition that I’m glad we’ve kept,” said Mankosky. “I’m hoping it continues because, for example, when I’m in college, I can’t come back for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, but I’d still like to attend the services of [my] synagogue. Having an option to do them on Zoom from my dorm or something would be really helpful.”
Many synagogues saw a definite spike in participation and engagement of their members overall after implementing virtual services made participation simpler. This was not the case for teen programs, though. Many teens interviewed for this article reported that engagement dropped when it went digital.
Kira Rodriguez, a senior in high school and member of the Rodef Sholom congregation, tried to stay involved after Rodef Sholom went virtual, and attended a number of virtual activities for the first few months. Eventually, it just became too much.
“I was just so mentally exhausted from always being on Zoom,” said Rodriguez. “I couldn’t take another two hours of it [for the teen activities].”
Golbus, who struggled to find rides to Rodef Sholom, said that he was never really engaged on Zoom, so he did not attend any of the virtual programming during the pandemic. Now that he has friends who are in-person again, he has become more active in his congregation. Still, the events look different than they used to.
“It’s not as crowded as it used to be,” said Golbus. “There’s less people I know, so there’s less of an incentive on my end to go to these [activities].” He said that it is just less of a habit to go to temple now than it used to be before the pandemic, even if people are slowly reverting back to how it was.
The pandemic-related loss of in-person interactions damaged teens’ social connections within their congregations. While some teens returned to their congregations as they began to open back up, others never did.
Mankosky also blames the decline in participation to her and her peers starting high school and becoming increasingly busy. What is normally a period fraught with change for teens became, in many instances, even more challenging as COVID-19 took its toll. She is not alone in feeling more disconnected from her peers.
“I remember there was a really communal aspect to the congregation before. My religious school class [and I] were really really close. We often invited each other to our birthday parties outside of religious school, even though most of us didn’t even go to class together,“ said Jacob Bensen, 15, about Agudas Achim. ”It was almost like having a second family.” Now, he says, this has fallen to the wayside as the class has mostly lost touch since COVID-19. Most people haven’t put in the effort to reconnect since returning in-person.
Mila Einspruch, 16, had a different experience with Zoom during the pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, she said that she was on the track towards dropping all involvement with her congregation, Temple Sinai, in Oakland, California. With virtual school, Einspruch was unable to hang out with people as she had before. Her Reform congregation had a monthly Zoom club for eighth graders aimed at engaging and conversing. It was such an enjoyable experience that she became more involved in her congregation after it opened back up.
Yet even for those like Einspruch who returned, the community still feels different than it used to.
“Now, everything’s a little bit more fragmented,” said Einspruch. “The biggest thing that’s blocking people from coming [to temple] is just [that] those [social] connections are gone.”
Despite all of this, Rodriguez saw a spike in attendance following COVID-19 at her Reform congregation, Rodef Shalom, as there was a lot of initial excitement to be back in the building together. She said that faded within a couple of months as the initial novelty wore off. Now, there are odd gaps in ages between the teens. There are few freshmen and sophomores that show up, whereas the upperclassmen, like herself, are more likely to participate in activities. A few teens weighed in on why this is happening.
“It feels like there’s this gap of time where I would have started to get more involved after eighth grade into freshman year where there’s this transition of becoming older and going to those activities [beyond religious school], but then that’s when COVID-19 hit for me,” said Adina Golbus, 17, belongs to Rodef Sholom with her brother Jonah. “COVID-19 I think had a part in [me not going to as many activities] because it kind of prevented that transition period.”
All of the trips and activities planned to ease this transition were canceled, exacerbating the rate at which teens stopped being active members in their congregations. Einspruch had a similar experience with the lack of structure.
“Straight out of our bar and bat mitzvahs, there would have been some scaffolding and structure [to motivate teens] to join the teen program,” Einspruch said. COVID-19 dismantled that.
However, Rodriguez said that the number of middle schoolers, particularly seventh graders, has shot up. Einspruch saw the same at Temple Sinai. Neither could point to a reason for the engagement.
Rudy Brandt, the director of youth engagement at Congregation Rodef Sholom, said that the pandemic was particularly tough for teens, so her goal was to design a no-pressure model of youth engagement where teens were able to engage when and how they wanted. To do this, she offered activities across the spectrum, from Get Out the Vote efforts on Zoom to movie conversations to cooking. Much of this is still the case even in-person.
Rodriguez, who also belongs to the Rodef Sholom congregation, said that these programs were particularly successful with the younger teens, and could be a part of why there were so many of them. Despite this, the revamped programming has not seen the same effects with the older kids. In an attempt to communicate and connect more with teens, Brandt and her colleagues have grown their social media footprints.
“[It’s] just kind of meeting teens where they are, trying to put, you know, what’s happening in our spaces in their faces via social media,” Brandt said.
This greater presence has been somewhat successful at encouraging teens to participate in their various youth programs.
“There have been some events that I didn’t go to when I saw [the posts on social media] it was like, I kind of wish I went to that. Maybe I’ll go to the next one,” said Golbus.
Rodef Sholom is not the only congregation that has changed their youth programs to see more engagement. Chaya Silver, the youth director at Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Va., is currently working on developing a hybrid program for the religious school at her congregation, with the goal of making it more inclusive and flexible for students and their families.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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