American Orthodoxy

Decentralization and Centralization: A COVID Tale of the Modern Orthodox Community

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Ezra Y. Schwartz

 

As we begin to finally see the light at the end of the dark tunnel of COVID-19, a lively conversation about the future of synagogues has begun. I am no longer a pulpit rabbi serving in a shul. But I remain a rabbi, and I remain deeply interested in the goings on in the Modern Orthodox community. Therefore, I prefer a different conversation, not one specifically about synagogues, but about communities and rabbis.

To my mind there are two changes that COVID has brought to Modern Orthodox communities, and of necessity to rabbis. These two changes seemingly go in opposite directions; one reflects increased decentralization and communal fracture, the other conversely speaks to greater centralization. When taken together however, these two changes have much to say about future directions for the Modern Orthodox world.

I.

Changes to shuls began long before COVID. Large synagogues have been in decline for some time. Shtiebels with their more energetic and community involved tefillot have been popping up everywhere. Certainly, the mega shul with a Hazzan is a genuine rarity in the early twenty-first century. Those large synagogues that have continued to thrive are effectively many shuls housed in a single building. Often these synagogues have an entire rabbinic staff to cater to the different tastes—such as Yeshivish Beis Medrash style, Hasidic style, Sephardic, young professionals, and youth—of the various groups that happen to be housed together. But even that model may have run its course. COVID has closed the door, possibly long-term, on the American mega shul, even with all its diversity. 

One problem for the mega shul is that backyard minyanim seem to be here to stay. Unlike before COVID, the backyard minyan is no longer limited to Friday night and Shabbat minhah prayers. It has emerged as the go to place for all tefillot. Those who out of necessity invested in heated tents to host minyanim in their backyards may be hesitant to return to davening regularly in the big shul. Even a comfortable pew in an aesthetically pleasing synagogue pales in comparison to the comfort and beauty of the great outdoors.

To navigate this new reality, the successful suburban rabbi, more than ever, will have to reach those who do not enter the synagogue portals. In some communities, he may have to move from backyard to backyard, from minyan to minyan and kiddush to kiddush to have a broad impact. He will have to find ways to engage those who even if nominally are members of the congregation, are certainly not regular participants. 

Backyard minyanim are a challenge for large suburban shuls. They present less of an obstacle for the urban shul. However, even in urban environments, COVID has accelerated the decentralization of communities. Many may return only seldom to the synagogue. Those who spent large periods of time away from shul may be hesitant to return at all, certainly to the large one they previously attended. In short, rabbis will tend to smaller flocks in the pews. Cavernous sanctuaries are unlikely to once again overflow. 

There are various reasons for this. For one, people have become habituated to praying elsewhere. But further, the American synagogue, particularly the urban synagogue, is largely modeled after Mordecai Kaplan’s Jewish Center. Kaplan saw the synagogue as a place for so much more than prayer. Although in most shuls nowadays there is likely no pool and no school, the shul nonetheless remained the center of a community’s social life before COVID. Shabbat morning youth groups entertained and educated the children. The kiddush nourished and entertained (though likely not educated) the parents. Absent youth groups and absent a kiddush, if that’s where we are headed in a post-COVID world, the American shul model barely stands upright and can be expected to do little more than limp. If all that remains is the core of tefillah, it is entirely possible that only the most dedicated will return to their old shul. 

In urban centers, the rabbi will need creative methods and new technologies to engage congregants. The pandemic has shown the effectiveness of new technologies in spreading Torah far and wide. Those who already have a connection with their rabbi can continue to do so over Zoom, even if they move out of the community. In fact, as a result of the pandemic, many, particularly in New York City, have left behind the urban life for more suburban areas. However, the personal connection to a rabbi that is so essential to the American rabbinate cannot be replicated over Zoom. With so many not attending shul and seeing and hearing the rabbi live on what once was a weekly basis, connections are an even greater challenge. 

To some extent this emerging American rabbi will need to model himself after the Israeli model of the rav ha-ir or rav ha-shekhunah. In that traditional Israeli model, the rabbi is not limited by the walls of a particular building. I recall spending a Shabbat in Modi’in a decade ago when the current Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Rabbi David Lau, ran from synagogue to synagogue on Shabbat morning. From what I am told, he spoke in eleven different minyanim that Shabbat, inspiring and sharing words of Torah (sometimes the exact same words) in each location. This rabbinic model was characteristic of prewar European communities as well. I recently learned that when Rav Dovid Lifshitz zt”l, was Rabbi in Suvalk, he was responsible for all thirty seven shuls in that town. A Rav was the Rav of a town. There may have been a large shul that served as his base, but his orbit extended to the entire community. 

The American model of a rabbi for every shul is historically novel. However, it serves a tremendous need. The ideal American congregational rabbi is far more than a teacher and preacher. He is a life guide and lifelong mentor for his flock. He offers pastoral counseling and is deeply involved in the life of his congregants. He is an essential part of their joys and their sadnesses. The ideal rabbi becomes one of the family. The Israeli rav ha-ir and the European communal rabbi was never expected to know the local congregants personally or be intimately familiar with their needs. He was a resource to whom one could ask halakhic questions when they arose and he represented the community in official functions. He rarely if ever offered pastoral counseling and certainly did not attend every simhah

The question to ask is how can the essential personalized pastoral role of the American rabbi persist in a decentralized world of backyard minyanim and shtiebels? How can the successes of a century of American congregational rabbis be maintained if many of the changes wrought by the pandemic remain in the post-pandemic world? 

II.

And yet, at the same time that we are encountering so much decentralization we are witnessing greater centralization than at any time in recent memory. For a long time, Modern Orthodox communities operated in pods. Each community rabbi operated independently and decided for his community. Often the rabbi would seek guidance from his rabbinic mentor; more often he would not. But on the whole, each synagogue was an island unto itself. Lack of centralization dominated. The pandemic has brought forth a degree of centralization that has for too long been lacking or perhaps never before attained in Modern Orthodox communities. 

Shortly before the pandemic, a large WhatsApp group for American rabbis was started. As if by fate, when the pandemic hit, this group proved immensely valuable for rabbis as they navigated the unchartered waters of COVID.[1] At first discussions focused on whether to close synagogues. Soon the conversation centered around how to arrange for the sale of hametz in a world of social distancing. Questions related to using technology on Yom Tov to avoid pandemic induced isolation at the Pesah Seder came next. Later the conversation segued into specific questions related to prayer in isolation and socially distant backyard minyanim. Questions of ensuring safe mikveh use and the proper way to conduct a wedding with the minimal number of people attending and maintaining appropriate safety methods followed. Rabbis discussed how to get the body of one who died to Israel and how to properly do the taharah process for the body. Rabbis not only shared halakhot, but more importantly they shared best practices. They listened to what was tried, what worked, and what failed. A spirit of collegiality emerged. 

For rabbis this was exceedingly important. Rabbis are very often overworked (as well as underappreciated), and the pandemic only increased the already grueling burden. Rabbis had to care for their congregants and assuage their fears and anxieties while they themselves were fearful, anxious, and even ill. The pandemic made rabbis feel even more isolated and exhausted than they ordinarily feel. But at least with these WhatsApp groups they recognized that they were not alone in their loneliness and seemingly endless exhaustion. They realized that there were dozens, nay hundreds, of rabbis who felt the same as they did. The dark veil was slightly lifted. 

But an even more significant benefit grew out of these WhatsApp groups: the long dormant position of gadol emerged from darkness. When I speak of gadol in this context I do not only mean gedolei Torah, whom we will discuss shortly. I refer also to the medical gedolim communities deferred to; physicians with expertise on infectious diseases became the address for many hundreds if not thousands of questions. Rabbis throughout the Modern Orthodox community carefully listened to Dr. Aaron Glatt’s weekly sessions to receive medical guidance and direction. Dr. Glatt (himself a rabbi) was on the WhatsApp chat himself. Rabbis would specifically pose questions to him, sometimes prefaced with the abbreviation QFD, questions for doctor, and he would respond. The Modern Orthodox rabbinate coalesced around a central medical figure and largely adhered to the same medical guidelines, guidelines which without question saved lives. 

Of equal, if not greater importance, the position of posek truly emerged in Modern Orthodox communities. Rabbis would pose questions to poskim and the WhatsApp chat labeled these as QFP—question for poskim. Of course, there have always been senior rabbinic figures to whom rabbis posed their own questions. But in the past, a posek would respond to a single rabbi with a private letter that sometimes was later published as part of a larger collection of responsa. Now however, multiple rabbis would pose a question to the posek, most often Rav Hershel Schachter, and he would respond to multiple rabbis at once. Further, it used to take considerable time for a pesak to be disseminated. With WhatsApp questions, the posek not only responded to many rabbis at once, but did so rapidly and in public. Everyone in the WhatsApp group could see the question and read the answer. Every rabbi could question the approach the posek took and ask for clarification. The conversation that ensued was animated and fruitful.

For quite some time, perhaps forever, the Modern Orthodox community in the diaspora has rarely if ever had poskim who drafted responsa, or teshuvot. Certainly the leading lights of the generations issued halakhic rulings. But by and large, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik did not write teshuvot, nor did Rav Aharon Lichtenstein or any of Rav Soloveitchik’s successors. Their rulings were issued orally to the individual questioner, and consequently, there was often some uncertainty about what exactly Rav Soloveitchik said. What precisely was the question? Were there extenuating circumstances? Did the one asking properly understand the answer given? Every nuance matters when it comes to pesak. Even well-publicized opinions were questioned and rightly so. Without a written record, uncertainty abounds. Despite the novelty of the medium, WhatsApp teshuvot are written teshuvot, and thus many of these concerns were removed. 

A consequence of COVID is that teshuvah writing emerged in the Modern Orthodox world. The teshuvot of Rav Hershel Schachter were spread on these WhatsApp and publicized even further on YUTorah. The widespread popularity of Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon, who is in Israel, led to separate WhatsApp groups where diaspora rabbis posed him their questions, COVID related or otherwise. Often these rabbis were treated to a full teshuvah in response to their query. Together with the teshuvot penned by Rav Asher Weiss, which have subsequently been published as a full collection of responsa, these teshuvot will be a primary source to look at to discover what was on the rabbinic mind and each stage of the pandemic. More importantly, as a result of COVID, American rabbis came to appreciate the role of a posek to whom they could pose their pressing questions and become a part of the traditional teshuvah writing process. 

Even now, when the darkest days of COVID have thankfully passed and there are fewer and fewer COVID related questions, the rabbinic WhatsApp groups continue to flourish. Questions about particular kosher certifications, questions of locating contact information for certain individuals, or detailed but not overly complex halakhic questions are posed by rabbis to rabbis. Rabbis are engaging with each other, looking for sources, and asking questions of one another. The collegial spirit that developed during the grimmest hours of COVID has continued and hopefully will remain even once we fully emerge into the sunlight. 

There is a paradox here. At that same time that COVID ripped communities asunder and created isolation and increased communal decentralization, a new spirit of collegiality and centralized guidance has come forth. Community rabbis have connected more with each other. Communities are now more than ever looking towards poskim for guidance on larger issues. Thus, even with the new challenges to the rabbinate and community structures that decentralization will pose, the inter-rabbinic fellowship is a ray of light that shines out as we approach the end of the dark tunnel of COVID.


[1] Much credit for the establishment of these WhatsApp groups goes to Rabbi Reuven Taragin of Yeshivat Hakotel.