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“Wow. That must have been really hard.” This is consistently the response I get when people hear that I began a new job as a synagogue executive director in May, at the beginning of the pandemic (doesn’t everyone mark time by where an event falls in relation to the pandemic?). On paper, that’s how it should have felt. A brand-new leadership position, in a field that was new to me, without knowing a soul, and All. Entirely. Remote. But truth-be-told, it didn’t feel so hard. I mean, yes, starting any new job is hard and this was no exception. There’s no escaping that new job learning curve. But the “hard” was not a result of the pandemic.

Success in my role depends on building relationships and collaborating. Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, JRC, is a progressive, participatory synagogue, and the members are just as much a part of operations as staff and clergy. I started off my new role scheduling several Zoom coffees with congregants. While there was never any actual coffee, these intimate one-on-ones were more impactful than the types of in-person conversations I might have had making my way around a room filled with new faces. They were slowed-down and personal. I got to know these members who brought so much knowledge and history and began to understand the essence of this very special congregation.

Between my Zoom coffees and my two-week, very thoughtfully crafted onboarding (developed by — you guessed it — JRC members), I was ready to go.

This year has literally zoomed by. Thirteen months later, I am a part of the family. The relationships I’ve built within these Brady Bunch boxes are authentic and meaningful and long-lasting. And while I am experiencing everything for the first time, so is everyone else! We have reinvented together.

In addition to committee and staff meetings, I’ve attended countless incredible Zoom services and life cycle events. JRC’s clergy create an intimacy and energy through the Zoom screen that is so meaningful and spiritually nourishing, leaving us all feeling truly connected to our community. My new congregant friends private-chat me like teenagers passing notes in class. Sometimes I have to work very hard not to laugh (and hope that I’ve mastered the mute button when I do).

Through this year that should have been so hard, I’ve had the blessing of being home with my daughters during their months of remote school. My work desk doubled as a puzzle table and my living room doubled as my office that doubled as the site of my younger daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. In the summer, I moved my laptop to the backyard and birds joined my meetings.

It has been an incredible year in a role that feels nothing less than b’shert. I’m grateful for the beautiful people who welcomed me with open arms and who work by my side to make JRC the remarkable congregation it is. And I’m grateful for Zoom for allowing all of this to happen so seamlessly. And yet…

There is nothing like being in person. Thanks to scientists and the COVID vaccine, I have had the heart-bursting joy of hugging and singing with my JRC family for the first time at our beautiful Lakefront Shabbat services. It’s like meeting your favorite pen-pal after years of writing. True elation. They are really real!

So thank you Zoom and thank you JRC and thank you science. I imagine I will have another new job learning curve when we all begin to meet together in our stunning building come fall. But I have no doubt that I will be just fine. And hopefully my sneaky friends will still pass me notes in meetings.

Written by Micky Baer

photo credit: Riley Baer