How the Lessons of Covid Will Shape the Synagogue of Tomorrow


I have never been a fan of surveys, particularly as measures of Jewish life. Questionnaires may have their place in identifying trends, but for plumbing the deeper meanings of Jewish identity and experience, discussion remains the only true gauge. And so a month ago, employing new fashioned technology for old fashioned conversation, I began to convene small groups of congregants for a series of Zoom chats I called “Jewish Life After Covid.”

As an early participant soberly noted, the title may seem premature: in no way are we “after Covid.” The next few months are bound to be painful ones of further sickness, loss and isolation. Indeed each gathering of eight to 12 members reminded all of us what we have been missing: the casual though meaningful rubbing of elbows after Shabbat services, or in the temple hallways on busy Sunday mornings – precious moments of physical presence, which however brief, connected us to a community larger than ourselves.

But as I explained to this temple member, I selected “Jewish Life After Covid” deliberately. Thanks to the emergence of multiple vaccines, we know we will get beyond the virus. And by looking ahead with hope, we lift our spirits today and better prepare for tomorrow. While we may want to forget most of this past year, much of what we experienced and learned can actually strengthen our Jewish future, and specifically the synagogue’s role in shaping it.

How to frame these conversations, though, remained a puzzle. Ultimately I decided not to ask participants what “Jewish Life After Covid” should look like. (I feared they would respond, “Rabbi, we thought that’s what you were going to tell us!”) Rather I posed a more personal question: “How have these last 10 months shaped your Jewish identity and experience?” After all, synagogue life is only impactful if it addresses individual needs and yearnings. So that’s what I asked about, believing what I heard could broaden our institutional vision.

And what I heard was rich and varied and often surprising. And as the conversations multiplied, common themes emerged:

A love of Judaism. Many participants spoke of having rediscovered through online Jewish ritual and learning an appreciation for the beauty of the tradition they had known was there, but had neglected to tap. They read more Jewish books, and with the “time to think” once rare in their lives, explored through the lens of Jewish literature and tradition the prioritization of values and the meaning of faith. Many spoke of how study and worship offered perspective and hope during a year of political unrest and new awakening to systemic injustice. A few congregants struggling with illness, loss and loneliness poignantly described the ability to hear and discuss matters of the spirit as nothing short of “lifesaving.”

A need for Shabbat. For those who go off to work Monday through Friday, the weekend offers a break in routine. But when our homes become our offices as for many of us they have, and the boundaries between work time and private time disintegrate and each day seems just like the day before, the chance to mark the end of one week and the beginning of the next takes on added significance. Shabbat offers that. And many I spoke with became more deliberate about observing it, if not by tuning in to services (which most reported doing more than before the pandemic) then by lighting candles on Friday nights and inviting family to join them over Zoom. Some became closer with their families as a result.

Convenience matters. Though their impact may perhaps be diminished, ritual, educational, social and cultural offerings are all easier to access online than in-person. Even those who live nearest the synagogue found tuning in from home required less effort than getting “dressed up” to go to shul. And because online offerings can be viewed after the fact (“late-streaming” as opposed to “live-streaming”), many participants were grateful to be able to catch what they otherwise would have missed. So not only were more people tuning in, but those who already described themselves as “regulars” were tuning in more often.

A lower threshold to entry brings more people through the door. Some Jews are nervous to enter synagogues. Some fear not being welcomed; others, being “assaulted” with attention by well-meaning congregants. Many newcomers seek to step into unfamiliar waters one foot at a time. (These are often the folks who come into our sanctuaries and sit in the back row.) And when Covid allowed them to tune in online and maybe not even turn on their cameras, some gave worship and learning the try they might not have before. Make no mistake: We should always strive to bring people on the periphery closer to the center of communal life. But for some, online programming with lower expectations of involved participation offered a comfortable, non-threatening way to taste what synagogues are all about.

Synagogues are not “local shuls” anymore. Technology works both ways. Not only does the internet make it easier for people to tune in, it makes it easier for us to reach out. If temples once considered themselves to be institutions of their local communities, we now know that any synagogue can reach any Jew anywhere. The other side of this coin? Institutions are now “competing” with one another for those Jews. Each must up its game, not by outdoing its neighbor, but by identifying what makes it unique and special to itself, and then “leaning in” to those qualities.

Online education works. The classical academy of Jewish learning is the yeshivah, which in Hebrew means “sitting,” because there students and teachers sat together and studied written and oral Torah. While nothing can replace the immediacy of in-person learning, online education can be effective, as the best of our children’s secondary schools have demonstrated. Virtual classrooms offer creative opportunities for teachers to engage with students and students to interact with one another, from screen sharing to breakout rooms. When we return to in-person childhood, family and adult education, we should maintain online learning tracks, remembering that some Jews cannot attend the synagogue because they are homebound, and others because they live too far away to drive their kids to the nearest shul for Sunday school. Online Jewish education offers the opportunity to boost American Jewish literacy, and future generations of “digital natives” – whose lives will be lived online – will expect it.

Online worship and lifecycle celebrations offer unanticipated meaning. Last Passover, when so many of us first confronted the inability to gather with family on a traditional family holiday, technology brought us together in a new way. Yes, family rituals without family present will always be bittersweet. But while the pandemic may have prevented or limited physical attendance at b’nei mitzvah, baby namings, and far too many funerals, the internet did permit elderly, sick and geographically distant relatives who might not have attended under normal circumstances to watch and even to participate sharing eulogies, aliyot and other honors. In Temple Emanu-El’s sanctuary, celebrants on the bima and congregants in the pews can now see on monitors family who cannot attend. And countless congregations are employing tablets and phones to accomplish the same ends.

Small groups flourish online. To enhance the spirit of community among their members, larger synagogues recently learned from megachurches to create small groups organized around shared interests or life experiences. (The initiative represents a new twist on the older chavurah movement.) Many Emanu-El members reported that the Zoom-style platform facilitated such connection. They could participate from home with little effort or planning, and met more congregants as a result. While the screen may be two-dimensional, it still brings us face to face with other people. And when the groups involved are small enough to view everyone on the same panel, the experience does allow for unusual intimacy.

Necessity is the mother of invention. The necessity will pass; the inventiveness must not.

Furthermore, those looking to “break in” to the community as new participants found it easier to do so online! Zoom rooms do not allow for cliques, or for friends of longstanding to find one another and go off to the corner for a private chat. Everyone stands on equal footing. When we return to our in-person programming, we must support and nurture the relationships our congregants made this past year, and maintain these new modalities of connection and the spirit of openness newcomers found because of them.

We all learned what it’s like to be isolated. Every synagogue has members who can’t get out. Often they are elderly or sick. Congregational leaders tend to focus on those in front of them – not because they don’t care deeply about the rest but because human resources are limited. The pandemic served as a poignant reminder of the agony of isolation. And it inspired us to reach out to our homebound members in ways we hadn’t before, and in some instances to assist them in their daily needs. That’s what caring communities do. For so many Jews, acts of gemilut chasadim, “lovingkindness,” are primary expressions of Jewish identity and commitment.

There is no place like home. The most common sentiment among all my congregants was the longing to return to their temple. As fulfilling as the virtual opportunities have been, nothing replaces being together in those sacred spaces filled with personal memories and meaning. So while we extend our outreach and our in-reach through the tools we have created and discovered, we must never fail to recognize the importance of in-person, onsite gathering. It may be difficult in January 2021 to envision our sanctuaries filled the way they used to be, but there has never been a moment in Jewish history when, once the danger of public assembly had passed, the Jewish community did not reassemble in even greater numbers. We will too.

Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh. “The entire Jewish community is interconnected and mutually responsible.” Many congregations utilized new technologies to share worship and learning with other synagogues around the globe, for instance celebrating Israel Independence Day with an Israeli community. But while some temples are fortunate enough to possess the means to invest in these tools and the staff to run them, many are not, including all those synagogues deeply impacted by the financial repercussions of the Coronavirus. Better resourced congregations should partner with struggling ones for the sharing of worship, educational and other programming. We don’t need to make Shabbos for ourselves anymore, and some synagogues simply can’t afford to. 

Thoughtful congregations with the wherewithal to do so should embrace the challenge of applying all we have learned this last year to become even more effective in reaching out to support our own members, the unaffiliated and the countless Jewish communities weakened by the pandemic. Necessity is the mother of invention. The necessity will pass; the inventiveness must not.

Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.