For This Jewish Community in Texas, at Least One Good Thing Has Come Out of the Coronavirus Crisis

Rabbi Matt Cohen of Galveston was fearing the worst before leading his first virtual service in Texas on Friday. Now, though, he thinks it could be a game-changer

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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Rabbi Matt Cohen in Galveston, November 2019.
Rabbi Matt Cohen in Galveston, November 2019.Credit: Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

With Shabbat services across the United States canceled due to social distancing guidelines to combat the coronavirus outbreak, many synagogues have taken their activities online.

In the small Jewish community of Galveston – a Texas island located just south of Houston – Rabbi Matt Cohen of the Temple B’nai Israel held his first-ever Zoom service last Friday.

“I was terrified,” the Reform rabbi tells Haaretz, speaking via telephone. “I was expecting things to go wrong. I was ready for the internet to drop, for someone to tell me the sound is terrible, for trolls to come in. All of these things were going through my mind.”

Having never used Zoom before, Cohen says the thought of using the video chat app incorrectly was so nerve-racking, he spent the whole week learning about the technology: from how to put the prayer words on the screen for everyone to follow, to broadcasting the event live on Facebook.

But once familiar faces began popping up on the screen, the young rabbi says he felt more at ease.

Temple B'nai Israel in Galveston. Normally houses about 30 congregants on Friday evenings, but attracted more for its first online Shabbat on March 27, 2020.
Temple B'nai Israel in Galveston. Normally houses about 30 congregants on Friday evenings, but attracted more for its first online Shabbat on March 27, 2020. Credit: Danielle Ziri

“My concerns about the technology were completely set aside when I realized what the bigger picture is – that people wanted to connect,” he says. “I realized it’s not about me getting it perfect.”

He adds: “This may have been, I hate to say it, one of the most meaningful Shabbat services I have ever led, because it was a different circumstance. There was a different need and there was a different feeling of connection.”

On a regular Friday night, some 30 people show up at Temple B’nai Israel. It begins with a small gathering over food and drinks, before congregants make their way into the sanctuary. As he leads the prayers, Cohen is usually joined by his 10-year-old son, Ayden, and the two play guitar throughout the service.

This time, the schmoozing took place online for a few minutes before the service began, and the guitar sounds came through computer speakers.

“I had more people at my Shabbat service this past Friday night than I do in person typically,” the rabbi says.

Besides the people who usually come to B’nai Israel on a Friday evening, some people from Cohen’s past congregations in Cleveland, Ohio, and Jacksonville, Florida, also tuned in.

Although he says the online experience was somewhat strange, Cohen also noticed how the platform was affecting his own experience.

“When I lead services, I don’t know if I’m doing a good job – because people don’t give you that feedback immediately,” he relays. “But on Facebook Live, you get all of these likes; you get instant gratification. When you’re seeing all these likes pop up, you realize you’re doing something right. You know that you’re reaching people and, in my profession, it’s really hard to know sometimes,” he adds.

No comparison

Among those participating in the Zoom service was Rabbi Jimmy Kessler, who is regarded as a pillar of Galveston’s Jewish community having served as Temple B’nai Israel’s rabbi for over 20 years.

Rabbi Jimmy Kessler and his wife Shelley Kessler in Galveston, November 2019.
Rabbi Jimmy Kessler and his wife Shelley Kessler in Galveston, November 2019.Credit: Danielle Ziri

“It was fascinating to see the number of people that showed up,” he says via video chat, adding that his successor “put together a really nice service.”

He points out that although the coronavirus crisis has stripped people of collective activities, by finding ways to bring them together rabbis can create a community. “It would be nice if people could see each other face to face, but if not, this is better than nothing,” he says.

Kessler and his wife, Shelley Kessler, have spent a lot of time self-isolating at home in recent weeks. “One thing that has put this in perspective for me has to do with our roots and our Jewish heritage,” Shelley says. “Thinking about what everybody did during the Holocaust to survive, you just can’t compare what they went through versus the inconvenience we’re having right now.

“We can do this,” she adds. “The things that were so important a month ago are just not so important anymore.”

As of Monday, Texas had at least 2,877 coronavirus cases and 38 deaths, according to the Texas Tribune. In Galveston County specifically, there were 70 confirmed cases as of Sunday, the Galveston County Daily News reported.

Despite Galveston County having a stay-at-home order in place, the island’s beaches were full of tourists at the weekend, according to both Cohen and the Kesslers. Because of this, the authorities decided to shutter them on Monday morning.

“The people in my congregation are being very smart” and observing the home quarantine orders, Cohen says, adding that the community’s doctors are “really the heroes.”

Shelley Kessler, meanwhile, says her “heart goes out to all the local businesses here. We’re trying to, at least every other day, order something to eat, even though we normally wouldn’t spend all that money. It’s just to say ‘We support you,’ even though in the long haul we don’t know if it’s going to be enough to keep their businesses open.”

Cohen, who recently returned from an organized trip to Israel that had to be cut short due to the health crisis, says that after it all ends, he hopes the experience proves a “humbling” one for folks.

“Maybe people will go back to their normal lives with their devices – when you’re sitting in a room with a bunch of people and everyone’s going to be sitting looking at their phones. But I think there’s going to be a different expectation, especially for rabbis to broadcast their services so that people can follow from the comfort of their own home,” he says. “I think it’s really going to change the way we do things.”

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