For Synagogues to Move Forward, They Have to Work Backwards


Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles on what a post-Covid Jewish community might look like.

To synagogues like mine, the challenge of the Covid-19 era, beyond the public health restrictions and the devastating human toll, is figuring out how to engage and create strong connections between and among community members over a screen. In thinking about this, I don’t only mean the congregation but the entire community: the official membership, the larger community that has been connecting with us for years, those who’ve “joined” us over the past few months, and the professional team as well. 

It is incredible to think that during this time in quarantine, Sutton Place Synagogue has and will welcome two new full-time staff people. Our first new staff member was all set to begin on Monday, March 16, the day New York State went on “Pause.” Abby Johnson, our membership and community advancement manager, needed to start immediately without any of the normal resources. She has been working diligently, round the clock, without ever having sat at a desk at SPS. But with savvy computer skills, an incredible demeanor, a commitment to building Jewish community, and a love for the Jewish people, Abby understood that by “beginning with the end in mind” she could seamlessly integrate into and be successful in the job.

Abby knew that the goal was to reach our membership, so she worked backwards from there. Figuring out where they are (physically and spiritually), understanding what they need (resources like toilet paper or help getting on Zoom), and creating new ways of engagement, she created a process and has connected with even more people on screen than she might have if she were in the office. The pandemic, while difficult, has enabled all of us to stretch our creative muscles, and not do things as they were always done, but rather, ask what the goal is and how we were going to accomplish it.

The success that we saw gave us the confidence for the next challenge: welcoming a new cantor on July 1 in a meaningful, deliberate and spiritual way (especially when singing is one of the most dangerous things that we can do this year!). Malachi Kanfer is joining us following the retirement of our current cantor, Dov Keren, who has been here for 36 years.

Drawing on what we learned from welcoming Abby, we are beginning with the end in mind. We know that we want our congregation to develop meaningful relationships with Cantor Kanfer, and so we will have virtual parlor meetings. We know that we want to deepen and strengthen our spiritual practice through Jewish music as a sacred community, and so, the cantor will teach various courses, across Zoom. We know that we want people to access our traditional texts in an accessible way, and so the cantor will create digital platforms for our congregants to delve deeper into the prayers and how they can speak to each person’s soul.

And of course, he will be able to connect with our SPS children on Friday mornings during our virtual “Sutton Summer” as he leads Shabbat prayers. He will lead us in a Tisha B’av observance over Zoom. And this is all the prelude to this fall’s High Holiday season, which will be far from normal but will feel deeply familiar and meaningful, even if it is virtual. Cantor Kanfer will bring his generosity of spirit, his incredible voice, and his love of Jewish people and Jewish music to elevate our community and in turn, we are confident that he will feel a part of us.

We have learned that in order to welcome and expand and integrate people — community members and professionals — we must lean into technology. It allows us to create connections between people who might have a harder time coming to the synagogue physically. And we need to, when we are back meeting in person, continue to provide access to our services in a livestream manner and be more conscious about welcoming those who aren’t only “in the room where it happens.” Leaning into technology (and practicing social distancing) not only flattens the curve but shrinks a sense of geographic distance.

Understanding and articulating our vision and our goals are the key to success as we plan in a very uncertain world. We don’t know what the months ahead will be like, but we believe that with the right professional team, a committed membership, an engaged community and an articulated mission, we can be successful during and after the era of Covid-19.