By all accounts, the transition from in-person to virtual High Holiday services because of the COVID-19 pandemic was a huge success.
Record numbers of people viewed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, albeit online. Synagogues worked tirelessly to make liturgy and music appealing and catchy in what was for many a new medium. While donations may be down, engagement is up — and that’s a good thing, right?
No, not necessarily.
The success of these services hides some very troubling trends in Jewish life, ones we must confront if we are to ensure its long-term well-being.
First, the move to virtual services gave a huge advantage to large, well-heeled congregations at the expense of smaller ones. The unspoken (and, I believe) unintended message is that these synagogues are producing the “best” worship services. That assumption leaves the overwhelming majority of smaller, small town, “outside the bubble” synagogues in the dust.
Every rabbi at a smaller shul can tell you about their own members who chose not to “attend” their services, because they were too busy “shul surfing” to see what the huge synagogues were doing.
The rabbis in those larger places are my close friends and teachers. My observation and complaint is not about them, nor about their amazing talents, nor about their vision for their communities.
But, what about the rabbis who are running one or two person operations? This has been the most stressful High Holy Day season that any rabbi can remember – worsened by the need to not only master texts and institutions, but technology. The burnout factor is huge.
The second disturbing trend is the slickness and professionalism of the online services themselves.
Worship, COVID style, risks becoming “worship-tainment.” It will be aesthetically pleasing, but passive. Moreover, as in the old saw “how can you keep them down on the farm once they have seen Paris?” – congregants in smaller, less affluent communities will simply opt for the bigger “show.”
That is, if they even remain congregants.
That is the third problem: when services are free and easily accessible online, why pay? Why go?
I am fortunate to lead a community in which the communal Velcro is very tight. Other communities do not have that blessing. Why join a synagogue when you can get it all for free?
Is this the way of the future?
It might well be – and that should worry us.
Worship in the age of COVID could increasingly fall under the sway of the rampant consumerism of American life. Years ago, Reginald Bibby, a Canadian sociologist of religion, wrote: “[Religion] has become a neatly packaged consumer item—taking its place among other commodities that can be bought or bypassed according to one’s consumption whims…”
The danger of online worship is that the individual worshiper abandons his or her own community, and becomes a browser via the browser for spiritual audio-visual experiences – the way I often surf through Netflix. When that happens, we all go into the media business.
As I wrote in The Gods Are Broken! The Hidden Legacy of Abraham (Jewish Publication Society), religious institutions will find it increasingly difficult to be in the business of selling experiences. It cannot simply be about “market share.” If there is something to be “sold,” the long-term investment might more credibly be on the less tangible product of community: a sacred community that commits itself to the hard, often unsettling task of study, observance and sacred action, a sacred community that commits itself to increasing “social capital” among its members.
What does it mean to increase “social capital” during these dark times of a pandemic? The jury is still out on that question. Two things seem certain.
First, we cannot abandon kavannah, sacred focusing and intention, as a goal of worship. That, and not the shiny aspects of production, should be our goal.
Second, contact counts. After COVID-19, we cannot be satisfied that better and better video services will answer the very real needs of congregants to take part in actual, ot virtual, communities of faith. Even the smallest of these communities, without the resources or personnel to mount online extravaganzas, must remain accessible, strong and vibrant for their local Jewish communities. Virtual services were a brilliant solution to the problem of the pandemic, but in the long term, they are not the cure.
Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin serves as the spiritual leader of Temple Israel in West Palm Beach, Florida. His column, Martini Judaism: for those who want to be shaken and stirred, regularly appears at religionnews.com.