Connecting During COVID

The 3 ½ weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah are lost in a haze of last-minute purchases: a new modem, spare headphones, a wifi extender, and, finally, a 50-foot ethernet cable. Forget about connecting to the congregation, or God, without an enduring internet connection. 

The 5 weekdays between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are spent in meetings and tech rehearsals; what can we learn from the feedback we received following our virtual services, study sessions, and workshops? What back-up plans do we need in case ShulCloud crashes again and no one can access the Zoom links through our website? We know we’ll need all equipment and personnel functioning at maximum capacity to power through Yom Kippur.

For many of us, these High Holy Days prove to be the most challenging, and exhausting, of our lives. 

For some of us, they are also the most inspiring and uplifting. 

Knowing that people from all around the world joined us on Rosh Hashanah fills my heart with hope. We found a way to combat the isolation and monotony wrought by a global pandemic: live streaming Jewish prayer and wisdom to the four corners of the earth. 

On Thursday afternoon, about 50 hours before the beginning of Kol Nidre services, I turned my attention from preparing for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, to make another vital connection. 

Some 50 days ago, or more, having been invited by Atlanta-based journalist Dave Schechter to serve on a panel at the Religion News Association (RNA) conference, I readily agreed. Recently, the topic had widened from a more narrow look at the impact of COVID-19 on pastoral care for the sick and the bereaved; now we would also address the effects of COVID-19 on clergy mental health, “as they seek to walk with their community members through times of grief” while remaining isolated. 

Our panel consisted of an imam, a minister, and a rabbi. Our conversation was moderated with grace by Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, Associate Professor at the Duke Global Health Institute and research director for the Duke Clergy Health Initiative since 2003. Rae Jean gave our discussion context by sharing data on the health and well-being of United Methodist clergy; she also expressed a desire to expand the research to include clergy of many faiths. 

During the course of an hour, we shared our stories—the challenges of connecting with people when it is unsafe to gather, the frustrations of mastering technology we didn’t learn in seminary, the stressful balancing act of serving others, and taking care of ourselves. We also shared our vision of a post-pandemic future, when we’ll emerge resilient and ready to act on what we’ve learned, poised to lead our communities forward rather than back to normal. 

Following the session, we gathered in a breakout room for additional conversation with the conference attendees, journalists whose follow-up questions centered on how clergy maintain our spiritual health, our calling to serve in the face of uncertainty. I left the conference with a renewed sense of purpose. 

This week, as we fill our Sukkah with virtual guests to celebrate Sukkot, the season of our joy, I hope to read some good news in the stories filed after the RNA conference. 

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