As COVID-19 infections rapidly escalate and the threat of virus variants causes renewed concern, the leaders of Atlanta’s most important Jewish institutions are having to take a second look at their current plans for High Holy Days services and other activities.
At The Temple in Midtown, one of Atlanta’s largest congregations has had to rethink plans that, just a few weeks ago, had seemed all but certain, said Senior Rabbi Peter Berg.
“Things are changing daily. Even our plans for the High Holy Days will be changing, as the world around us is changing. So that means we are prepared for whatever comes. And that could change any day now.”
Over the last year and a half, though, Berg has become more certain about one thing: the role that technology will play in the coming months, regardless of the threat posed by a resurgent virus.
The Temple, which once had a simple camera and microphone set-up mounted high in the balcony, far from the worship services that took place on the bimah, has a professionally installed control board and new cameras that have helped turn the historical sanctuary into what amounts to a kind of television studio.
More technology is on the way, with one of the building’s conference rooms being dedicated exclusively to teleconferencing. Berg sees it as one of the lessons that the pandemic has taught The Temple leadership.
“Last year for much of the year we were 100 percent virtual. We were pretty much on lockdown last year. We had no choice. But this year people will have an option. We have really different equipment now. Most people want to be here in person, and that may be their preferred choice. But when they can’t be here because there’s a health risk, they adapt to it.”
Meanwhile, the Breman Jewish Heritage Museum is preparing for the gala opening of an ambitious new exhibition celebrating its 25th anniversary. While it’s still planned as a red carpet in-person event, technology has given the museum’s executive director, Leslie Gordon, some flexibility once the exhibit opens.
“With the new technology we have basically seized the moment, if you will, and turned it around to our advantage. Because of the pandemic we may lose people walking in the door, which means we will lose admission money, but with our technology we have expanded our reach not just in Atlanta but all over the country. So whatever happens, I feel like we’re ready for it.”
Gordon, who took over the Breman just a little more than a year before the pandemic hit, believes that her experience coping with the constantly shifting demands of the last year and a half have shaped the way she sees the role of virtual programs.
“And it actually has a lot of advantages to being able to do this virtually, and that we can reach more people at once than we could fit in the gallery. And we can focus on one aspect, for example, of the Holocaust and not feel the need to take people through every single area within the gallery. So it’s going to require hybrid models. Where there’s both a piece that you can access from your living room or a piece that can happen in person. So we know we’re going to have to cover all those bases.”
And the Atlanta chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women is beginning to deliver donations of school supplies to help disadvantaged young students.
It is also preparing its volunteers this month for the possibility of personally tutoring students in eight metro public elementary schools. A decision on whether the COVID-19 vaccine is safe for children under the age of 12 is expected later this fall, but masks in many schools have become mandatory.
Sherry Frank, who is the co-president of the organization, says that many in her group are eager to get back to personal contact with students, though she is also mindful of the risks.
“In person, we can do a lot more bridge building, a lot more team building, a lot more open discussions. We think everybody is anxious for that person-to-person contact, so our goal is to try to provide that as much as we can, being tied to science guidelines in concert with our medical advisors.”
But as much as she is concerned about those working and learning in schools, she is just as concerned about a future where large numbers of Georgians will still choose not to be vaccinated.
“I’m just hoping that with this very contagious and dangerous Delta variant, that there’s a rush to get vaccinated. People need to realize that this is more than serious.”