Commentary

The Synagogue after Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity

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Judah Kerbel

 

We are turning a corner in the battle against COVID-19. The first vaccine in the United States has been distributed. Just as we have been forced to adjust to the “new normal,” the news of societal immunity has many of us fantasizing about returning to the “old normal.”

But will it really be the “old normal?” In his book Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity, Scott Galloway presents two theses in the realm of business that impact synagogue life as well. First, he argues, COVID-19 is not creating new changes in society but accelerating them. The trends were already present, but the crisis has forced us to reckon with this impact more directly than we may have expected. An example is remote work: it was done before COVID-19, but has now become far more common. Second, there is opportunity in every crisis, especially severe crises.[1] By evaluating future options wisely, getting ahead of the accelerated trends, and being willing to reevaluate what we already know, companies can succeed in a post-pandemic world.

This is particularly pertinent to the future of the synagogue. COVID-19 did not merely press the pause button on the regular synagogue experience. Instead, the adaptations we made during this time inevitably will shape our expectations for prayer and community moving forward. We have tasted the seductive fruit of convenient and shorter prayer services, be it in our own living rooms or in a neighbor’s backyard, which had neither a rabbi’s sermon nor lengthy announcements. Our experiences attending shiurim have changed as well; we could listen to a shiur on our couch, perhaps with the camera off, pajamas on, and a few other screens open. All of these possibilities existed to some degree before COVID-19, but the trends have likely been accelerated by the pandemic. Moving forward, synagogues may be challenged to convince Jews to once again fill the pews. Some believe that many millennials (a generation of which I am included) are less likely to belong to institutions altogether. This is due to the fact that grassroots and start-up mentality often speak more to millennials than establishment organizations, including synagogues, with their long institutional history and protocol. Granted, Orthodox Jews need some sort of community structure for religious and social purposes, but we should not take synagogue demand for granted.

It therefore is critical that communal leaders articulate what we have to offer and make the case that being part of a centralized synagogue community is still a meaningful and worthwhile investment of time, money, and energy, even as they make appropriate post-pandemic adjustments.[2]

Why We Need Synagogues

COVID-19 has demonstrated in multiple ways that we need robust synagogues, even more than previously thought.

First, while one can pray anywhere, dedicated space is important. We often think the purpose of synagogue is to join the minyan, but Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 90:9) rules that one who cannot pray with a minyan should still pray in the synagogue. Mishnah Berurah (90:33) explains that it is a place set aside for sanctity. This principle perhaps is not just a directive for greater piety but also speaks to the core of our prayer experience. While we did our best to see the upsides of turning our homes into mini-synagogues during the pandemic, we maintain the notion of sanctity by distinguishing between the holy and mundane, between home and synagogue. It is easier to communicate with God and hear God’s voice if the place we go for that conversation is different from the place where we communicate with friends and hear the noise of mundane entertainment and news. Particularly in light of the increasingly common pursuit of mindfulness, we can experience that in synagogue.

Additionally, it is important to consider the virtue of a verse articulated in Proverbs (14:28): be-rov am hadrat melekh, “the king is glorified among the multitudes.” This is not just a halakhic concept but a spiritual and experiential one. There is an energy that a community can create that one cannot replicate at home. Certainly, davening a weekday minhah with 90,000 people at the Siyum ha-Shas creates a different energy than davening with a smaller minyan. While that may be a once-in-a-sabbatical experience, the principle stands that power is found in numbers. For those blessed to have larger shuls, singing Lekhah Dodi with 200 people feels very different than it does with 20. Even those who pray with a minyan might make the choice between praying at synagogue and going to the more convenient minyan closer to home.

Another element of synagogues is the shiurim, classes delivered by a rabbi or layperson. At points, I have wondered why anyone would want to come listen to me teach Torah when everyone has the best speakers and teachers available through an internet connection. Especially during COVID-19, many organizations and institutions were able to draw upon top scholars and lecturers. Yet at the end of the day it is meaningful for people to learn with those with whom they have a connection. Inspiration can come from an online speaker, but connection comes from learning with someone with whom one has a prior relationship. While YUTorah and Torah Podcasts will still be popular post-pandemic, perhaps even more so than beforehand, there is much to gain from the learning that takes place with others in the same room. The speaker draws energy from the audience, and that energy creates a dynamic that is difficult to replicate online.

It is widely accepted that in-person learning for children is better than Zoom classes. While the content is the same, the community built in school along with the presence of learning together is qualitatively different in school; likewise, the content of a Zoom shiur may be similar to what is offered in person, but the environment could not be more different. It is hard to stay focused on the screen where the shiur is taking place when there are other windows looking to grab our attention. To hear the voice of God through Torah, being in that sanctuary or Beit Midrash with the phone on silent and focusing on the speaker, sources, and the people around us can make the experience of learning Torah transformative in the way we all dream it will be for each and every one of us.

A third element of synagogue life that is even more difficult to create virtually than prayer and learning: the social-communal relationships generated by synagogue participation. As engagement expert Ron Wolfson writes, synagogue “is not about programs. It’s not about branding, labels, logos, clever titles, websites, or smartphone apps. It’s not even about institutions. It’s about relationships.”[3] While the primary, expressed purpose of synagogue is our relationship with God, there is a lot of truth to the notion that we come to synagogue to connect with other people. Our social engagement with others froze in place during COVID-19. As a rabbi, I was still able to connect with and support my members through phone calls to individuals and electronic communication with the community at large. That network was pre-existing, and the connections had already been built during my time as a rabbi prior to the pandemic. But suppose the current situation were to continue as is for the next five years? Over time, it would be difficult to renew support systems, and it would be especially hard to create new relationships and networks. Indeed, friends of mine who moved to a new community over the summer shared that they were largely disengaged religiously and socially from their new community. While thankfully we are seeing the end come nearer, we can create more successful relationships by being part of an expansive and dynamic social network. There are benefits to our well-being through cultivating casual friendships beyond our closest inner circles, and we have been missing that during the pandemic.[4] Showing up to a robust synagogue community can bring us those friendships, including with people of a different generation who have a lot to offer and teach us.

Synagogues should be seen as centers for Jewish experience – religiously, culturally, and socially. While many aspects of synagogue life can be fulfilled through other models, the collective functions of a synagogue hopefully make it experientially compelling to not only passively join but actively work to maintain and grow.

How Might Synagogues Adjust?

While leaders should make the case that people should come back to synagogue, we must also consider how the synagogue experience will look post-pandemic given the way people experienced Judaism during the pandemic. Will we return to the two or three hour services that took place previously? How will that impact the decisions of those who have been praying in smaller minyanim or at home until now? The only thing that might prevent people from running to the hashkamah minyan that takes place in many synagogues is the early hour. But should every minyan follow the hashkamah approach of speedy davening? What does that mean for creating prayer that is reasonably efficient but also creates substantive meaning? A related issue is the matter of High Holy Day services. In my synagogue, we began at 8:30 am and finished at 11:30 am on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. For some communities, that is not all that different from the length of regular Shabbat services. Putting aside halakhic considerations of eliminating piyyutim, should we continue on this path? On the one hand, some may find they have more time to learn Torah, eat lunch at an earlier hour, or find it easier to sit through the services without feeling Judaism is a burden. On the other hand, will Shabbat and Yamim Tovim feel the same in the absence of basking in the holiness of the synagogue?

A helpful way to frame this is to think about what actually makes prayer meaningful. For example, one way in which services have been kept shorter has been by curtailing singing. This was done both to limit the time people spent gathered together and because singing can be a dangerous way of spreading the virus. I personally miss the singing at synagogue tremendously; I feel a deep loss of soulful expression. To take an extreme case, I found myself quarantined on Yom Kippur. I sang some piyyutim alone to try to give myself some sort of “Yom Kippur experience,” but I much prefer doing that with my community than by myself. And I suspect I’m not alone in feeling that way.

But others do not feel that way. When I was in college, there were two Orthodox minyanim on Friday nights: “Carlebach” and a non-singing minyan. Most attended the former, and while some thought the latter was too separatist, perhaps going forward we will embrace the ability to provide multiple options where possible. Even in a “main minyan” setting, some middle ground may be sought. Ba’alei Tefillah will have to be ever more mindful of ending at a reasonable time for the majority, and gabbaim may need to balance a leader who sings a lot with someone who leads efficiently. It also may behoove us to reevaluate the extended time that comes with walking around the whole sanctuary with the Sefer Torah and extra mi she-beirakhs that only bring people meaning if they are having a really good conversation with their neighbor. Instead of restoring these practices once they either become safer or because time permits, the absence of these practices during pandemic worship may be welcomed as permanent changes.

Sermons are another piece of services that take time. While most synagogues expect the rabbi to give a sermon, it could be worthwhile for synagogues and rabbis to explore whether the regular model of fifteen-minute sermons could look different post-pandemic. During COVID-19, even after Shabbat services resumed, I emailed out sermons that people could read at their own leisure, while still giving a brief devar Torah at the end of services. Rabbis will still speak post-COVID, as we have a responsibility to educate, and it can be meaningful to have this in-person learning opportunity on Shabbat. But while the well-developed fifteen-minute sermon will still have its place, perhaps rabbis could vary the script by occasionally sharing an insight into the siddur, raising a question before the Torah reading with an answer at the end, or even just a short, powerful idea to give food for thought instead of a formal sermon. This would also allow rabbis to invest more time in fine-tuning the quality of their sermons when they do speak and streamline their most essential messages. Even one of the greatest darshanim of his time, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm z”l, wrote that early in his career, he was advantaged by rotating the delivery of sermons, and the task became more challenging once he was required to speak weekly. Reenvisioning the sermon slot has the potential to increase the impact of the Torah that is shared in synagogue.

Similarly, even as there is greater meaning to be found in live participation in shiurim, many people who do not typically attend shiurim in person did join on Zoom throughout the pandemic. Coming out at 8:00pm is not practical for many people. While I of course hope people will join for Ma’ariv and my shiur in person post-pandemic, I’m not ready to give up on Zoom entirely for this reason. We should take every opportunity to reach as many people as possible.

Even the medium of in-person shiurim could change. Shabbat afternoon outdoor classes, while initially offered to accommodate people who were not coming indoors, may be worth continuing simply for the sake of providing different environments for gathering and learning.

The same applies to events that are not learning centered. While we hope events ranging from comedy to supporting Israel will gain in-person audiences, perhaps homebound seniors or parents supervising children will still be able to participate via Zoom.

A final takeaway to be considered going forward is the experience of women. Women had a different experience of “coming back to shul” than men did. In New York State, the governor originally allowed quorums of ten to gather for worship. This meant that Orthodox women were not able to attend synagogue for a month in New York. Even after women were officially able to come back to synagogue, many young mothers were not able to come to synagogue because of restrictions barring children from attending, which sometimes meant that young fathers were not coming to synagogue either. An absence of female presence can really affect the whole community. We need to acknowledge that COVID-19 has furthered the arguments for increasing women’s voices in the community, and signals the importance of increased female leadership in Orthodox communities under the guidelines of the Orthodox Union.

This extends to other forms of inclusivity – as many others, including children and high-risk individuals refrained from coming to synagogue, we should become better attuned to who is missing in the seats and resolve that exclusivity beyond our control should not be replicated when it is in our control to be inclusive. As we move to truly reopen post-pandemic, we should work ever harder to welcome every person who enters our doors and give them a seat at the table to help synagogues improve and thrive.

Hashiveinu Hashem Eilekha – it is in God’s hands when we are in the post-COVID world; v-nashuvah – but we will return to our holy spaces when that time comes. Hadeish yameinu k-kedem – may we find renewal that feels like returning to the “old normal,” but may it be a true renewal – an opportunity to reshape, reimagine, and rebuild.


[1] Scott Galloway, Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity (Portfolio/Penguin, 2020), xvi.

[2] Shortly before this piece was published, Rabbi Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, wrote a beautiful opinion piece that deals with many of these themes.

[3] Ron Wolfson, Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community (Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013), p. 2-3.

[4] Jennifer Latson, “The New Social Orbits,” Psychology Today (January/February 2020): 53.

Judah Kerbel is the rabbi of Queens Jewish Center in Forest Hills, NY and teaches middle school Gemara at Ramaz. He holds semikhah from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, an M.A. in medieval Jewish history from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, and a certificate of completion in the mental health counseling program of RIETS/Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. He received a B.A. in Jewish studies and psychology from the University of Maryland and learned at Yeshivat Har Etzion.