“It made me sad and

frustrated that COVID-19 made our busiest time of the year

so quiet.”

Joe Burchell, 75, is Chairman of the Catford Synagogue and a key member of Lewisham Rotary Club.

He has been working hard to keep the Orthodox Jew community connected during this time – particularly challenging with the closure of the synagogue and religious restrictions on using technology.

“As Chairman of the Synagogue, it was my responsibility to make it safe and useable for worship once we were allowed to reopen after the first lockdown. We removed some of the furniture so that people could remain two metres apart, and created a screen for the minister so they were protected also.

“I wanted to make sure we were open for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the two highest holy days in the Jewish religion), and myself and one volunteer worked tirelessly to make this happen. We couldn’t have too many people helping for obvious reasons.

“Being an Orthodox Synagogue, we are not allowed to use any forms of digital communication such as microphones or video recordings, so we had to adapt to reach out to our community. This has been a huge challenge. We cannot ‘zoom’ or use online video sessions for our services on the Sabbath, but we have been able to run these on different days of the week, and we have been inviting guest speakers for online discussions about religion, as a way to keep in touch with everyone.

“Very few members of our community ended up attending the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. This is the time of year when we usually expect a huge turnout, as it is often the time when our ‘once a year’ members of the community come together with our regulars. It made me sad and frustrated that COVID-19 made our busiest time of the year so quiet.

“I worry about how long this is going to go on for – it feels very scary not knowing there is an end to all this, and I worry that people are not taking it more seriously and following the rules so we can all get back to our normal lives again.

“I am also worried about our immediate community at the synagogue – we are an aging community, and everyone is (rightly) fearful of returning and resuming services as they were, we won’t be able to do this until there is a vaccine widely in use, and that might take some considerable time.

“I have been truly humbled by the volunteer response from our community here at the synagogue. At the start of the first lockdown I put out an appeal for volunteers to assist with getting food and medicine out to our elderly and vulnerable members, and was overwhelmed by the response! It makes me feel very proud.

“I’m also feeling positive about a toy gifting project I am working on with the Lewisham Rotary Club. We usually take children with disabilities out on a day trip to Chessington World of Adventures every summer, and obviously that didn’t happen this year so instead we are putting together boxes of toys for these children, and also children of refugees and asylum seekers.

“The synagogue is struggling financially – we have kept all our staff on full pay throughout, but have not been receiving the income we usually would so that has made things difficult – especially with the investments we have had to make with screening equipment and adapting the synagogue for worship. And unfortunately my son was recently made redundant after 20 years at the same company, which has been a bit of a blow to the family. I can understand the problems these companies are going through but it is very upsetting when it happens to someone close to you.

“I hope that local communities and political parties can work together to fix this instead of fighting with each other. I can just about remember the Second World War, and there was a feeling of everyone coming together for the greater good of the country - one effort. It feels like there is too much anger and divisiveness when we need to be working as one.”

Joe spoke to us in November 2020