Houses of worship in the Bronx suffer loss of congregation and financial hardships during COVID-19

Rabbi Saadia Pewzner of the Bronx Jewish Center discusses COVID'S effect on houses of worship.
File photo

As some churches and synagogues received money from the federal stimulus bill, many are struggling and have lost clergymen. In fact, citywide more than 150 rabbis and pastors have died from complications of COVID-19.

These deaths have affected their family, friends and congregants and the question remains, how these houses of worship will survive the coronavirus.

Councilman Fernando Cabrera, who is also a senior Pastor of New Life Outreach International Church at 2757 Morris Ave., and Rabbi Saadia Pewzner of the Bronx Jewish Center at 1969 Haight Ave., spoke with the Bronx Times about the crisis.

“A church without a pastor often lacks direction,” Cabrera said. “It’s like having a city without a mayor.”

Cabrera said if someone told him six months ago that a virus would kill thousands, including many clergy men he would not have believed them. He has been a pastor since 1988 and never experienced anything like this. When COVID-19 first arrived, Cabrera thought it would have a small impact but didn’t imagine it would take so many lives.

The pastor explained that normally when there is a void in leadership people know in advance, have time to look for a replacement and interview candidates. However, hiring a new pastor or rabbi virtually is not a piece of cake.

“It’s very painful for congregations to see their leaders to die in such a way,” he said.

Cabrera noted that because pastors and rabbis are doing outreach, checking on people and in hospitals, they are facing exposure to the virus on a regular basis.

“There has never been an event in the last 100 years where so many pastors have died at the same time,” he remarked. “This is going to greatly affect the network of churches.”

The councilman also discussed reopening and said he already knows some churches will remain shuttered. He stated that after being closed for two months, with high rent and no money coming in, they simply cannot afford to stay afloat.

He explained that while people think small businesses are the only ones hurting, houses of worship are in a similar predicament. These establishments struggle to pay bills, rent and salaries with little to no money coming in.

Cabrera stressed that even when the buildings reopen people must social distance and wear face masks.

“This is new to us,” Cabrera said. “I am hopeful that many people will come back because they need it. At the end of the day it’s going to come down to the church and how they will make it safe.”

While the Bronx does not have a large Jewish population like Brooklyn or Manhattan, the Jewish community in the borough has been affected by COVID. In fact, recently when legislators helped secure a kosher food grab and go site for Bronxites, Pewzner was asked to help find people that need the food and find ways to get it to them.

Councilman Fernando Cabrera discusses COVID’S affect on houses of worship. Photo courtesy of John McCarten

With many elderly members, several who live alone, this has been a very tough time for them, the rabbi explained. He has lost congregants to COVID and has even officiated funerals where he was the only one there.

“People right now are very scared,” the rabbi said.

Pewzner has been delivering food every Friday for Shabbat to 50 or 60 families since the pandemic began and noticed that not only are many hungry, but many need basic items like toiletries. As seniors, they are afraid to go out, so he does his best to help them.

While the rabbi does not envision synagogues closing, he feels that there will be a decrease in membership. Besides the loss of life, Pewzner said some people may simply leave New York City to live someplace cheaper and with more space where they would not be as exposed to any future type of virus.

He has spoken to other rabbis in the city and noted that everyone is treading water.

“We’re sitting in the same predicament,” he said. “Right now we’re trying to get up in the morning and do the best we can.”

When COVID first arrived, he never envisioned it would have this type of devastating impact.

“We saw the writing on the wall, we just didn’t know where it would lead,” Pewzner said.

The rabbi told the Bronx Times the effects of COVID are far worse than September 11. While 9/11 had an immediate impact, he said that the virus has no end in sight.

Pewzner, who is a baseball fan, recalled how shortly after the terrorist attacks America’s pastime returned and the Yankees played in the World Series. But today, there are no sports.

While the lives of many rabbis have been taken during the crisis, he feels now more than ever, Jews need the guidance of the clergy and its leadership. People are out of work, sick, burying loved ones and struggling, he said.

“People are really searching for meaning,” he said. “Life is never going to be the same.”

Even amongst the darkness and sadness, Pewzner said has seen a silver lining through the chaos.. People are coming together and helping one another on a wide scale throughout the city.

“People need people right now,” Pewzner said.

Bronx residents have lost brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and friends and sadly, could not mourn any of them properly. Many people close to Pewzner have passed, including a mentor, Rabbi Yisroel Friedman.

Looking forward, he tells his congregants to follow the instructions of the health department and the government.

“Think good or be good and try to stay positive,” he said.

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