Stories from the Field: Sarit Katzew - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Stories from the Field: Sarit Katzew

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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Sarit KatzewSarit Katzew
Havurah, The Addison County Jewish Congregation in Middlebury, Vermont
Director of Education, Program and Outreach Coordinator
Currently a student in Cohort 8 of the Executive M.A. Program in Jewish Education at HUC-JIR

Sarit Katzew is the Director of Education as well as Program and Outreach Coordinator at Havurah of Middlebury, Vermont. She also holds an annual pulpit as High Holy Day soloist for a Reform Congregation in upstate New York. Sarit has worked in various roles in Jewish education over the past 13 years including b’nei mitzvah program coordinator and tutor; youth group advisor, classroom teacher, and adult education instructor. Sarit also co-leads a Service (T'filah) Leadership fellowship for Hillel students at Middlebury College and art camps/classes for all ages through the Middlebury Art Studio.

I work at a Havurah in rural Vermont. We are unaffiliated and therefore a bit of a Jewish melting pot. We do not have clergy on staff, so I am somewhat the de facto spiritual leader of my community, especially now, in addition to being the educator.

Our Hebrew school and programming have moved online so there’s a lot of work around creating meaningful content and connection, while not overwhelming our families. I’ve also been working with our B’nei Mitzvah families to explore alternative and virtual options for simchot. There’s a grief that comes from lifecycle events being postponed, even if we know they will happen in the future in some form or another, it’s a loss.

Frequently now, I participate in a Zoom meeting that's for all the rabbis and spiritual leaders from all the synagogues and Jewish organizations across the state of Vermont. I'm also in a clergy/lay leader group that's being trained to do virtual minyans, kriah ceremonies, and graveside services, so that I can help with COVID-19 funerals. So there's a broad spectrum to what I'm doing right now. 

I have always said, before any of this craziness started, that we can always find a different way if we need to. If a family needs to sit shiva but can’t be together physically, we bring in technology to help forge connection. If a B'nei Mitzvah kid has a learning disability, or a family has a financial crisis or whatever it may be, just talk to me, and we will work to find a way forward.

Right now, my focus is on connection over content. We are doing virtual tacos, tequila and Torah study, and everybody hashtags their own tacos that they make! The topic, actually without us choosing it, happened to be the Book of Job. So we turned it into the Book of Job in the time of pandemic, and it became this super-well attended, very thought-provoking, deep-dive into peoples' anxiety about what it is like to be Job in our times. Everything we're doing program-wise is taking on this different flavor and seems to matter more because people are desperate to connect. 

Making Matzah

I have had better attendance during this time at home than we did for some of our in-person gatherings. As we live in a small rural community where people are far apart, instead of driving 45 minutes one-way to be a part of an experience, you are now able to have some of that virtually, which I think is really important to recognize.

For Passover this year, we sent out a bunch of materials and resources. Then on the second night, I opened a Z[oom]issen Pesach room for an hour so people could drop by, show us their Seder table, show us they were sitting on the couch in their PJs not doing a Seder because they don't have the bandwidth for Passover this year, or whatever they are comfortable with. It was just a chance to connect and check-in with each other. For people who really wanted the rituals, we went through a few and even helped get people matzah (or make their own!) because they didn’t want to go to the store.

I have made more phone calls to those in our community in the last two weeks than I have in the last 5 years, and people are picking up the phone. People are now eager to get back to you and have a conversation. 

No one can know for sure how long this homebound reality will continue, but I’m proud to be a part of a community that is finding ways to thrive. I believe, now more than ever, we have to lean into creative space, and figure out how to create sacred space, even though we're not together physically.

HUC-JIR's Executive M.A. program is generously supported by The Jim Joseph Foundation.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.