How COVID-19 Pushed a Tiny Jewish Congregation in Puerto Rico Far Beyond Its Borders

What started out as an emergency Zoom Shabbat service in San Juan is now bringing together worshippers across the Americas

By Judy Maltz. Originally published on Haaretz.

On a typical Shabbat morning in these not-so-typical times, Rabbi Roberto Graetz opens his weekly Zoom prayer service at 8 A.M. That’s 8 A.M. Pacific Time, since Graetz is not in Puerto Rico – where he would normally be at this time of year – but in the study of his permanent home in Lafayette, California.

In San Juan, where his congregation is physically located, the clock has just struck 11 A.M. And in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, where the rabbis-in-training who help him lead the services reside, it’s already noon – that’s to say, two hours ahead of Guatemala, where his cantor, her guitar already perched on her lap, eagerly awaits her cue to start.

Finding the optimal time to hold Shabbat morning services, says the Argentinian-born Reform rabbi, can be a challenge when your congregation is nearly 4,000 miles (almost 6,500 kilometers) and several time zones away. It doesn’t make things easier that some of those sharing the weekly responsibilities with him are even further away.

“Now that they’ve changed the clocks back here on the West Coast, my congregants asked me to start at what would be 7 A.M. my time,” he says in a phone call from his California home. “I told them there are limits to how early I’m willing to wake up, and that they’d have to carry on without me in the coming months until we’re back to a normal hour.”

New lease on life

The coronavirus pandemic has forced synagogues around the world to adjust and improvise to keep their congregants engaged and to stay relevant while fulfilling social distancing requirements. For Reform congregations, not bound by halakhic restrictions on electricity use, platforms like Zoom have made it possible to continue holding Shabbat and holiday services remotely.

Temple Beth Shalom in San Juan is the rare case, however, of a congregation that has not only maintained some semblance of normalcy during this crisis, but even found opportunity in it to span out way beyond its borders.

“What we have been experiencing here on Shabbat mornings over the past few months is simply amazing,” says Israeli-born Shula Feldkran, who moved to Puerto Rico more than 50 years ago and has long been an active member of Beth Shalom.

“Given the choice, most people would obviously prefer being in a real synagogue. But for me, because I’m a bit hard of hearing, the Zoom services are even better,” says the 75-year-old, only half-joking.

Temple Beth Shalom congregant Shula Feldkran pictured in 2015 with Anthony Cruz, who was the rabbi-in-training at the time.
Temple Beth Shalom congregant Shula Feldkran pictured in 2015 with Anthony Cruz, who was the rabbi-in-training at the time. Credit: Judy Maltz

Beth Shalom, the only Reform congregation in Puerto Rico, was founded in 1967 by North American Jews who had begun moving to the island in search of business opportunities. Because of language and cultural disparities, they didn’t feel comfortable or welcome at the already established Conservative congregation – founded by Jews who had fled Cuba after Fidel Castro rose to power – and so they started their own place of worship.

Most of the children of these North America Jews eventually left Puerto Rico, and only a few members of the founding generation of Beth Shalom are still around – most having died or moved back to the mainland for health reasons.

The congregation received a new, and rather unexpected, lease on life in recent years thanks to growing numbers of Puerto Ricans who have discovered Judaism – some claiming Jewish ancestry – and are converting. Today, Jews by choice account for more than 90 percent of the paid membership at Beth Shalom.

The congregation has long relied on “volunteer” rabbis – typically, retired rabbis from North America – who spend a few months at a stretch on the island. Friday night services are conducted in English, for the benefit of the remaining founders and the snowbirds, and on Shabbat morning in Spanish. According to Graetz, in pre-coronavirus times, Friday night services would draw on average 15 to 20 participants, while Shabbat morning services attracted somewhere between 40 and 50.

Since services went online in mid-March after the coronavirus hit Puerto Rico, the numbers have been growing consistently, Graetz says. He notes that in recent weeks, between 80 and 90 worshippers have been attending the Saturday morning Zoom.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit Puerto Rico, the rabbi who typically volunteers during the winter months had just returned to the mainland, and Beth Shalom members were left without a rabbi or a place to pray, as their synagogue, like all places of worship, had been ordered closed.
“I offered to run the Shabbat morning services remotely, and another colleague of mine took responsibility for the Friday night services,” recounts Graetz, 74. “At some point I got a bit tired, so I reached out to three of the students at the new rabbinical training center in Argentina where I teach, and asked them if they’d like to take over for me since there was little actual congregational work they could do these days. I told them I’d train and mentor them, and they said they’d be delighted.”
Screenshots taken from archived recordings of virtual services. Clockwise from left: Rebecca Orantes, Rabbi Roberto Graetz, Martin Hirsch, Edy Huberman and Pablo Schejtman.
Screenshots taken from archived recordings of virtual services. Clockwise from left: Rebecca Orantes, Rabbi Roberto Graetz, Martin Hirsch, Edy Huberman and Pablo Schejtman.

This is a second career for all three of the rabbinical students, he says. Edy Huberman, from Buenos Aires, is executive director of Argentina’s Fundación Judaica (an association of progressive synagogues); Martin Hirsch, from Concepción, Chile, is an engineering professor; and Pablo Schejtman, an Argentinian based in Fortaleza, Brazil, is an insurance executive.

Graetz would usually have been taking off for his annual stint in Puerto Rico just before the High Holy Days, so when September rolled around and he was still stuck at home, he called his students and made them an offer. “I said: let’s all do this together.”

Over Rosh Hashanah, they were joined in their online services by Adat Israel, a Reform Jewish community in Guatemala whose members are all converts. Rebecca Orantes, an aspiring rabbi with a beautiful voice, was immediately recruited as a cantorial soloist.

‘Like watching a talmudic dispute’

Once services were opening to participants outside of Puerto Rico, Graetz’s rabbinical students asked if they could also invite members of several tiny Jewish communities they knew in remote corners of Argentina and Chile. Graetz was more than happy to oblige. In the meantime, some of the regular snowbirds, stuck at home on the mainland, had started to join.

Salatiel Corcos, a 32-year-old building contractor who is Beth Shalom’s current president, sees a trend with great potential. “We’re now starting to think about how we can bring in other small Spanish-speaking communities – communities that don’t have their own rabbis and don’t have their own place to pray.”

Beth Shalom has already reached out to a small Reform community in Mexico, he says, and hopes to bring it on board soon.

To prepare for the hour-and-a-half-long service, Graetz and his three students convene online on Thursdays and divide up the readings. Graetz delivers the d’var Torah that addresses the portion of the week, and his students then take turns commenting on it. “Sometimes, it’s almost like watching a talmudic dispute,” says American-born Marc Schnitzer, a past president of the congregation and retired professor of linguistics who’s been living on the island nearly 45 years.

After the Torah reading, the rabbis-in-training recite Jewish texts, prose and poetry of relevance to the weekly portion. “This is my favorite part of these services,” Feldkran says. “I learn so much from it.”

In recent weeks, coronavirus-related restrictions in Guatemala have been eased, and members of the local congregation have been allowed back into their synagogue in limited numbers. It was the first time in months, Graetz recounts, that any of the participants in the weekly Zoom service had come close to seeing a Torah scroll. “We all watched online as they took the Torah out of the ark in the synagogue in Guatemala – and I have to say, it was a very moving scene,” he recalls.

The cons of attending services online far outweigh the pros, Schnitzer says. But that doesn’t mean the new format doesn’t have its advantages. “For one, our snowbirds can tune in wherever they are, so that’s been really nice,” he says. “For me personally, there’s been another benefit. Usually, my wife and I would go either to Friday night or to Saturday morning services. Ever since the pandemic hit and the services have moved online, we go to both. So you could say we’re more active in the congregation now than we used to be.”

When life returns to normal, Graetz is confident his congregants in Puerto Rico will choose the real thing over Zoom. “But what we’ve discovered is that there are people out there in isolated communities around South America who are hungry for this sort of connection, and they’re not going to want to give it up,” he says. “So I believe there will be a virtual community that continues to exist even when this is over.”

This article was originally published in Haaretz.