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The pandemic is forcing synagogues to reinvent themselves

The Forward is taking an ongoing look at the future of synagogues in America in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you have information or insights, please contact [email protected]

The start of May means different things to different people, but for most synagogues, it means it’s time to start planning for the high holidays.

And it’s never been so difficult to make those plans.

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the spiritual and communal high points in the Jewish calendar — and also the time when many synagogues earn enough from ticket sales, membership renewals and donations to sustain their activities for the rest of the year.

It’s almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which it would be advisable to gather hundreds of congregants — in many places more like 1,000 to 2,000 people — in the same room a little more than four months from now. But neither does taking Judaism exclusively online look like a sustainable or spiritually satisfying alternative. As such, the soul-searching that is at the heart of the high-holiday season is starting especially early this year, and has many leaders and thinkers across the Jewish community looking even beyond the fall holidays, to the very future of the synagogue in America..

“It’s going to be very challenging for people to work through this,” said Dr. Ron Wolfson, the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and author, most recently, of Relational Judaism.

Dr. Ron Wolfson, American Jewish University

Dr. Ron Wolfson, American Jewish University

“Asking for contributions when people are losing income and jobs and feeling insecure is going to be especially tough,” he added. “And yet, in the middle of a crisis, people look for ways to get support. There’s a great hunger for learning, for connection, at a time when you’re isolated.”

‘We’re all first-year rabbis’

As these questions surfaced in synagogues across the country, an unprecedented Zoom call took place last week. bringing together rabbis from coast to coast, and from all denominations. The online gathering was the natural outgrowth of a question that Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, the leader of Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis, posted in a multi-faith clergy support group on Facebook, itself formed in response to the coronavirus crisis. Latz found an outpouring of interest from other rabbis keen to share ideas and concerns about navigating uncharted waters.

His initial thought was to foster a conversation among around 25 rabbis. Instead, he got 339.

“There’s a real moral question here,” Latz said. I don’t think anyone expects us to have either herd immunity or a vaccine by September 18th, so what then?”

Not being able to tend the flock in person – and not knowing when it’ll be safe to do so — is a loss over which many rabbis are grieving, he said. Latz recounted being asked by a brand-new rabbi what he, after 21 year on the bima, would recommend. “I said, look, we’re all first-year rabbis these high holidays.”

The call he hosted included rabbis and some cantors from all walks of Judaism, pointing to a phenomena many rabbis interviewed for this article cited: a kind of lowering of denominational divides.

Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, the leader of Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis, Minn.

Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, the leader of Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis, Minn. Image by Courtes of Shir Tikvah

“Before coronavirus, we all lived in parochial spaces,” Latz explained. “‘This is my shul, this is my brand.’ But now we’re in a time where in order to thrive as a people, we need to reach beyond those boundaries to lift each other up and support each other.”

The upsides of virtual

One of the people on that call was Rabbi Diana Miller, who like many rabbis across America, took her synagogue online-only in mid-March. That was a sea change for the Little Shul by the River, or Kehilat HaNahar.

For the community of 130 families in New Hope, PA and neighboring Lambertville, NJ, being present to pray is important, but the hugging and schmoozing that follow is as holy a part of the ritual as any.

Rabbi Diana Miller of Kehillat HaNahar in New Hope, Penn.

Rabbi Diana Miller of Kehillat HaNahar in New Hope, Penn.

But from simchas to shivas, shul life has had to go virtual. That’s had some upside. One of Miller’s recent highlights was officiating at a baby-naming in which the mother, Princeton professor Betsy Levy Paluck, was able to share her joy with friends and family in six different countries, including Rwanda, where she had done some of her field research.

“Everyone involved had a front seat to this event, and the technology allowed for an incredible experience that wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” said Miller, a Reconstructionist rabbi. The Little Shul has even attracted some new members in the course of lockdown, a sign that people feeling isolated are searching for ways to connect.

But six weeks later, Miller wonders if some congregants, who at first logged on in droves while life as we knew it ground to a halt, might now be experiencing a bit of “Zoom fatigue.”

“It’s cool,” says Miller, “but it doesn’t replace what we’re ultimately yearning for.”

That seems to be the rabbinical consensus. In Boca Raton, Fla., Rabbi David Baum, of Congregation Shaarei Kodesh said Zoom has allowed snowbirds who only attend during “the season” to join the community virtually, even though they’ve headed back north for the summer. So online shul has opened up possibilities for more people to connect from afar, but also underscoring how much better it is to meet face-to-face. “I believe that one of the lessons we have learned through our social distancing,” he said, “is the power and importance of being together, in person, as a community.”

Rabbi David Baum of Share1 Kodesh

Rabbi David Baum of Share1 Kodesh

Rabbi Carnie Rose, a Conservative rabbi in St. Louis, Missouri, has taken to heart the lesson of one of his favorite Jewish jokes: “I don’t come to shul to talk to God, I come to talk to Goldstein.” He has eschewed Zoom on Shabbat, instead relying on a livestream in which he, one of the other rabbis or the cantor comes to the synagogue alone and runs a service as a “shulcast” that’s always on. The results, he said with candor, are mixed. “Being seen and being heard is very powerful for people,” Rose said, “so Shabbat feels a little flat right now.”

‘We’re not just going to snap back’

Whether it’s with Zoom or streaming or the outdoor minyan in which 10 people stand at a significant distance from each other, the pandemic is altering the way Jews do Judaism, and synagogue life may never be quite the same.

Having synagogues across America physically shuttered has opened possibilities that were unfathomable only a few months ago. A wandering Jew can pop into a mega-seder in New York, a Zen Jewish meditation circle in LA, a cantorial concert in Berlin, a Torah study circle in Istanbul and a Kabbalat Shabbat service in Jerusalem — all from the comfort of home, possibly in their pajamas. Will there ever be a reason to get dressed and go to shul again? And with much of it being offered for free while the contagion-related crash consumes jobs and eats away at investment portfolios, many rabbis wonder how synagogues large and small will sustain the shocks.

“We’re not just going to snap back to where we were before,” said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. At the same time, he said, the need for spiritual sustenance through this period of uncertainty has only proven how relevant Jewish life is. “I do think that there will be a period in which we can show people that when they were pushed against a wall, they needed Judaism, they needed Torah, and they needed loving teachers to help guide them through it.”

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean's Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

But rabbis, teachers and the institutions that sustain them come at a cost, and some communities may find increasing numbers of congregants struggling or flat-out unable to contribute. It’s still too early to calculate how the cascading economic downturn — one that could potentially be the most severe since the Great Depression, according to a presidential advisor this week — is going to impact synagogues and other key players such as Jewish federations, day schools and summer camps.

“The reality is that this has been a disaster and we’re nowhere near finished,” Artson added. “There will be a lot of nonprofits and small businesses that won’t recover. Many donors will not be in a position to give, or will be scared and will be waiting on the sidelines for a while. So we’ll have to accommodate for that and figure out how to get through the next couple of months and years.For the high holidays, Rose said members of his 137-year-old congregation would like nothing more than to sit where their grandparents sat and davened. But they’ve sketched out a plan with three possible options.

“One is completely virtual and I’ll have no choice but to work with Zoom,” he explained. “Two is a hybrid, with both virtual and non-virtual. Three is to do three ‘sittings.’ Rather than put 1,600 people in one space, we might limit it to 600 and do it three times. Or maybe it will be 1,200, and we tell 400 who are at higher risk, please don’t come – join us from home.” His synagogue has been against assigned seating on high holidays, but maybe they would use that this time, to enforce social distancing.

When declining membership collides with corona blues

In many ways, the pandemic has amplified previous, long-standing challenges. The Pew Research Center’s 2014 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” showed a declining trend of synagogue membership and religious affiliation among American Jews, with 32% of Jewish millennials describing themselves as either having no religion or simply identifying as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture. Synagogues have long been finding it difficult to attract younger families and individuals.

Now, hit even harder by the corona economy, some synagogues may find themselves pressed to make difficult decisions soon. Membership levels and donations can be expected to drop, and if synagogues remain online, congregants are likely to expect to pay less or to question the efficacy of being enrolled in religious school. Galas and other fundraising events may be out of the question for most of the 2020-2021 year.

“It’s likely that this will present challenges to budgets, and the biggest part of those budgets are salaries for staff,” Wolfson said. “Some synagogues, for example, will have to make decisions about junior rabbis if they’re large congregations. The fear of serious furloughing is a real concern in these congregations. And if jobs disappear, how do the seminaries recruit new classes of students?”

Wolfson said it may take angel investors to allow some communities to maintain their staff, including people like teachers, youth directors, and support staff. “If this crisis continues and people don’t step up to support congregations, we’re in danger of losing core institutions in our community, or we’re going to lose jobs in those institutions, which would be terrible,” Wolfson says.

Digital, agile and less territorial

It feels wrong to define a pandemic as having a silver lining. But one reality is that while the bricks-and-mortar synagogue may be due for a slow-moving blow, newer and more creative forms are thriving and expanding. Lab/Shul, a New York City-based community founded by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, was already partially online to include participants off-site. Their second night Pesach seder had upwards of 1,000 households join at different points during the night.

Around the same time other synagogues went online only, Lab/Shul started offering Soul Spa, a daily afternoon Lab/Shul gathering that ends with an opportunity to say kaddish, the prayer for the dead.

Amichai Lau-Lavie Image by Courtesy of Amichai Lau-Lavie

“We’ve already been a pop-up and we already were a digital community, but never as much as now,” said Lau-Lavie. “We’re Jewing more than ever. We’re spiritualizing and community networking. How much of that will maintain into month two or three or six, I don’t know. But we are making space for people to connect to themselves and to each other, some of that is helping.”

In this period that has forced millions of people inside, bringing the pace of travel to a halt and curbing carbon emissions in a way that Greta Thunberg could not, it’s worth using this moment to reset the Jewish community’s clock as well, said Lau-Lavie.

“For Jews, there’s a real question about our ecosystem: How much do we need and how can we share resources? How can we be agile and fluid and less territorial?” he asked. “Smart teamwork is going to create a survival-of-the-fittest for the community at large. It will be the synergies that emerge from this that will sustain the future.”

Ilene Prusher is a writer and journalism professor based in Boca Raton, Florida.

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