October 2020 -- Tishrei- Cheshvan 5781,  Volume 26, Issue 10

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Rabbi David Wilfond

Temple Shaaray Tefila  Finds Silver Linings During These Challenging Times

Temple ShaarayTefila in Bedford, one of the area’s largest Reform Congregations, had the same dilemma synagogues across the world were facing during this global pandemic: it was tasked with creating what one temple member referred to as the “Superbowl of Services” for its congregation, a group used to enjoying services in person with fellow congregants and their extended families. “We knew that we had to create something unique, engaging and inclusive, that drew our temple members in, that gave them a sense of “being home,” while also opening our doors to the larger community”, said Alli West, Executive Director.

 

Moving from the enchanting tents of Caramoor in Katonah (where Shaaray Tefila has held its High Holy Day services for the past 30 years) to the small screen, the synagogue set out to create an experience as meaningful and welcoming as its traditional in-person services. This was also to be the first year that the new Senior Rabbi (who only began in July) would be addressing the congregation from the pulpit during the High Holy Days.

The collective minds of the Shaaray Tefila clergy, staff, board of directors and devoted congregants set out to meet this challenge and exceeded their goal by reaching over double their normal audience of congregants— more than 6000 people across the globe over the 10 days spanning Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. “It was important to honor our traditions and at the same time expand our synagogue’s offerings to those who may not have had access in the past. We were grateful to have an opportunity to engage a larger audience. Hopefully, this will be a catalyst for increased membership in the future,” said Temple President Karen Spiegel.

 

How did Temple Shaaray Tefila do this? During the six weeks of pre-production, Shaaray Tefila had more than 100 temple members submit videos of spiritual readings, honors to the Torah and heartfelt messages of peace and good wishes for the New Year. This included a cameo from Michael Douglas who, with his family, has been a member of Shaaray Tefila since 2013. “Up close, participation by members and their families added another dimension to the holidays that we never really had before. How nice to be invited into homes as part of our worship services,” said long-time member Bill Greene.

 

Using the majestic Shaaray Tefila sanctuary and its bucolic 10-acre property as a backdrop, the virtual services featured world-class musicians and incorporated multi-camera live streaming, pre-recorded readings from congregants, pre-produced and live musical vignettes and emotional and engaging sermons from both the new Senior Rabbi David Wilfond and founding Rabbi Emeritus David Greenberg. This unique combination of familiarity and innovation engaged the congregation as never before. Another long-time temple member said of her family’s experience, “We felt that we had come back home, singing along (on- and off-key) with the words and melodies of seasons past. These services have given us the needed boost to recharge and rejuvenate during these trying times.”

 

It is not yet clear how these new experiences will carry forward into the new year. What the congregation does know, however, is that its Jewish community is flexible, resilient and forward-thinking. As times inevitably change, so too will Temple Shaaray Tefila and its devoted members.