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What will the rabbinate look like after COVID?

In many ways, rabbis serve as the first spiritual responders for Jewish communities; we are often the first place people turn in moments of crisis. As the leader of the organization that represents Reform rabbis worldwide, I’ve seen firsthand the key role rabbis have played in leading Jewish communities nationwide as they adjust to radically new ways of existing and connecting amid the pandemic.

Even as our responsibilities – keeping communities engaged, building our communal futures, meeting pastoral needs, helping ensure the financial stability of our synagogues and institutions – have remained the same or even increased because of the ongoing crisis, the way we fulfill those obligations has changed completely, with little to no advance warning.

Many of us have had to quickly learn new tech skills, vocabulary, and equipment. Our homes have become broadcast studios, filled with multiple screens, mics, green screens, and ring lights, or in some cases, rigged-up, next-best options like living room lamps and sheets tacked up on walls.

The way we officiate life cycle events has also been dramatically altered; beyond videoconference weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs (or “Zoom mitzvahs”), we are also now often the only person graveside at the cemetery, with perhaps the funeral director and only a few of immediate family, when our community loses a member, and sometimes even officiating from afar on Zoom.

While it is true that rabbis are accustomed to doing the difficult work of comforting the dying and their loved ones, now, our rabbis are enabling people taking their last breaths to say vidui on Facetime, or reaching out to their network of peers to find a rabbi in another state who can bury a congregant’s parent several states away, while also conducting multiple funerals and shivas, albeit remotely, every week. And they’re often doing all this while worrying about their own family members in the hospital, or even grieving those family members they’ve just lost.

I am deeply proud of the way that rabbis across the country have responded in this moment of trial. We have thrown ourselves, heart and soul, into meeting the needs of the moment in endless ways. We’ve quickly set up classes, services, learning opportunities, one-on-one pastoral counseling, social programming, and programming for kids — including bedtime stories with the rabbi and Tot Shabbat broadcasting from the rabbi’s couch, with stuffed animals in attendance.

We have virtually invited our congregants into our homes, so much so that the boundaries between personal and professional have blurred, particularly for rabbis with spouses who are also teleworking, or little children who may interrupt a Zoom meeting or Facebook Live services.

Lest anyone think is this only about congregational rabbis – all our rabbis are deeply engaged in this work in a myriad of ways, from those working with residents in senior living homes, hospices, or hospitals, Hillel rabbis now working remotely with students, rabbi-educators figuring out ways to educate online, and in so many other settings.

It’s also important to acknowledge the fears and anxieties that many rabbis are grappling with, whether pandemic-induced depression or worries about their own financial future and the future of their synagogues and communities. There are also feelings of guilt and inadequacy. No matter how hard we try, we can’t be there for our congregants the way we used to be and are trained to be: no hugs, no hand on the shoulder of a mourner, no way to quietly whisper to the nervous 13-year-old that they’ll be okay.

At times, the moment we’re in can shake the very core of a rabbi’s sense of self and purpose. The reality is right now that rabbis are exhausted and stretched beyond belief, with no downtime or days off, and yet so great is the commitment to be there for the community that every day rabbis are waking up and jumping back into it all over again.

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But there are so many lessons we can and must learn from these trying times. I’ve been amazed to see and feel how incredibly connected and spiritual a Zoom shiva can feel, especially now that family and friends from all over the world can attend when it would not have been possible in person.

I’ve been heartened to see synagogues partnering with each other to co-host Zoom speakers for study sessions and lectures, or book events jointly co-hosted by different institutions. There is no reason why such partnerships across geographic lines should end when social distancing restrictions do.

We also know that there are those, from both older and younger generations, who are becoming newly engaged in our congregations and communities because of the convenience and comfort of doing so from their own homes. I “went” to a Facebook Live service in California one Shabbat from my home in New York where someone wrote in that they were enjoying being at services in their pajamas and would like to continue to be able to do that. Keeping individuals like these engaged after the pandemic is behind us and things return to semi-normal is both a tremendous challenge and an incredible opportunity for rabbis everywhere.

Ultimately, the future will be a hybrid of the way we did things before and the way we’re doing them now. Many synagogues have been live streaming for a while, but this pandemic has shown how we can take that spirit of accessibility to the next level, whether it’s using the chat feature on Zoom, or the comments on Facebook Live.

One synagogue I joined for a Facebook service had an assigned greeter (one of the synagogue’s several rabbis) who acknowledged each person as they entered the service, and then explained things throughout. That inclusive, welcoming approach, which is the gold standard in person, must continue to be at the heart of how rabbis approach our work during and after the pandemic, whether in person or online.

Through all the struggles and hardships of this moment, rabbis persevere because they are truly spiritual first responders, because they see their role as being there for their people, providing help and hope and a way through difficult times. While the physical circumstances we find ourselves in may change, our commitment to serve as a spiritual support to our communities will not – and we will grow stronger as leaders through this experience.

Rabbi Hara Person is the chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.


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