January 7, 2022

Synagogue After The Pandemic

By Simon Eder

Synagogue membership has been in decline for some time and this has only been further exacerbated by the virus. As we have seen, the pandemic has hastened increased digitalisation, automation, virtualisation of the workspace and most importantly has brought to light the way in which organisations need to reassess their structures to survive and thrive in a new world. Our synagogues are of course not immune to this important reckoning if they too are to emerge effective and fit for purpose in a post-pandemic world.

We are certainly a people that are used to change. We have met the challenges throughout our long history when confronting the various threats both without and within sometimes to our very survival as a people, with an attitude of innovation and renewal. And yet I can’t help feeling, thus far, following the return to shul that we have failed to embrace the opportunity for change. We have in short, simply not demonstrated a willingness to truly understand the present challenge and then rethink and evolve. As the doors of our communities have reopened we have been presented with more of the same, perhaps with the one exception trumpeted as the panacea to resolve all spiritual frustration – shorter services! Many of us are asking, to paraphrase the line of Hillel in Pirkei Avot – ‘’why shouldn’t we separate ourselves from the community if it is not answering our essential needs now?’’

We have simply not demonstrated a willingness to truly understand the present challenge and then rethink and evolve.

We must surely acknowledge that many have found new found freedoms, flexibility and indeed meaning outside of synagogue life. With inspirational Ted Talks, meditation apps, other educational tools or online communities to nurture our inner questing for spiritual fulfillment only a click away, our synagogues need to realise what they are competing against. Some have found more joy in smaller gatherings at home and benefitted from time spent together in more intimate family gatherings on a Shabbat morning to engage and discuss. Whilst communities, perhaps of all denominations in recent years have put an emphasis on raising the level of religious observance, what many are feeling is a lack of theological engagement and an opportunity for meaningful conversation. Heschel’s warning on the very opening page of his God in Search of Man is more relevant today than ever as we ask just what we need out of our communal spaces to ensure that they are compelling for us as modern Jews: ‘’When faith is replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit, the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendour of the past, when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain, when religion speaks only with an air of authority rather than the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless’’.(1)

Synagogue life is indeed in danger of becoming meaningless if it can’t connect to people’s concerns. At the start of the pandemic what the early digital uptake indicated was certainly that there remains a hunger for spiritual engagement and yet as our sanctuaries have opened up again, many remain empty. Of course with Covid still raging the return to physical communal prayer is perhaps not the easiest entry point but as the rest of the world is discovering, our future must be phygital – an important mixture of both the physical and digital. I do not propose here to address the halachic issues connected to Zoom services suffice it to reference those important words from Blu Greenberg’s 1983 Essay on Women and Judaism, ‘’Where there is a rabbinic will, there is an halachic way.’’

Rather than default to the simplest conclusions of our Rabbinic leadership that most people are exasperated by drawn-out services we would do better to ask what is truly going to lift people’s spirits? How might we incorporate more poetry or inspiring readings? How could we give more of a voice to lay people with important insights to share? What are the experimental elements that in more intimate settings we have felt freer to explore such as meditative practices, bibliodrama or new niggunim. Whilst of course innovation in our prayer services is important we might perhaps reflect on the description of the early pietists as described in the Shulkan Arukh: Orah Hayyim 98 who would withdraw in preparation for prayer and the ‘’service of the heart.’’ Perhaps today some of us are not ready to pray again and we therefore need to cultivate new spaces for study or engagement in different ways.

The celebrated author Simon Senek has spoken of the need to vary the spiritual offerings that speak to both extroverts – those who draw strength from social settings and introverts for whom the same situations are possibly even traumatic. We need to cultivate our spaces for gathering accordingly, realising that there is still a huge opportunity for developing further those recent experiences in backyards, on rooftops, in people’s gardens and in our homes. Communities might consider opting, at least sometimes for a more decentralised approach by coordinating smaller gatherings for people to meet.

In their 2021 Global Human Capital Trends report, the consulting firm Deloitte concluded that an organisation’s ‘’shift from survive to thrive depends on it becoming and remaining distinctly human at its core. This is not just a different way of thinking and acting. It’s a different way of being, one that approaches every question, every issue and decision from a human angle first.’’ It is surely these sentiments that must carry through as we seek to address the future of our communities. The very meaning of Bet Knesset itself is ‘house of meeting’ and yet how many of us really feel when we have left synagogue that we properly engaged with others or been transformed by new encounters? We have all missed those serendipitous moments maybe during kiddush or to and from a service but what is still mostly lacking is for communal leaders to break up our silos and help to facilitate new and deeper connections.

We will have definitely failed if it is just our communities’ Shabbat experiences that we address in our new world.

I genuinely had thought that shul kiddush would have been a thing of the past following the pandemic, with the potential for contagion at those tables of food sharing platters. Now though kiddush, certainly at those synagogues that I have attended since the return is the time where all covid etiquette is thrown to the wind, we de-mask and make a beeline for the nibbles on display. My main point here though is not to castigate how our communities police social distancing rules but in fact to call out how terrible what is on display still is. Diets have changed significantly over the last few decades and we have become more conscious with our eating habits. Surely with this in mind going forward, we can source a more nutritious offering for our kiddushim?

We will have definitely failed if it is just our communities’ Shabbat experiences that we address in our new world. There is such potential to open our synagogues up as cultural hubs with concerts and exhibitions or as centres for social action too. Over the decades, it is perhaps ironic that as denominations we have borrowed more from each other in terms of ritual practice than areas such as these. It was the founder of the Reconstructionist movement’s daughter, Mordecai Kaplan who, a century ago this March, celebrated the first ever Bat Mitzvah, a practice which of course has been adopted by virtually all sections of the community and how many of us today, perhaps with the exception of the Sefardi world, do not incorporate the music of the late Shlomo Carlebach into our services? And yet whilst so many Progressive communities take the mantle of social action seriously, it is sadly so many Orthodox ones who we see languishing in this domain. The message for our community’s leaders is that we must borrow from the very best that we each exhibit and where cooperation is possible that we reach out beyond our divides to pool resources in order to flourish.

In his book Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity, Scott Galloway outlines a thesis relating to business that applies equally to the question of the future of the synagogue which is simply that with crisis comes opportunity. It is through our evaluation of future options wisely and getting ahead of accelerated trends and being willing to reevaluate what we know that organisations will succeed. It is this lesson which our communal leaders need to grasp.

In a sermon from 1957 describing his ideal vision for the synagogue, Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs wrote that it ‘’must link heaven and earth. It must be more than a sacred edifice, remote from the daily concerns of living men and women, in which they indulge in a kind of religious escapism. It is a gateway to heaven, but not to the heaven of a distant dreamland, but rather a heaven with the power to elevate and transform life on earth. The ideal Synagogue possesses breadth as well as height. It is a power-house of the Jewish spirit in all its manifestations, a place where Jewish fellowship is fostered, where the Jewish soul is fashioned and nourished, and where the Jewish mind can grow and be sustained.’’

The pandemic has afforded us the opportunity to reset and truly fashion dynamic communities that nurture us and enable us to stand at our own gateway to heaven. May we have the courage together to manifest such places.

  1. (1) Heschel, God in Search of Man, p.1

Simon Eder is Editorial Director of Jewish Quest. He writes regularly for the site and has written for the Judaism column of the Jewish Chronicle. He is a founder of the Jewish Community in Dubai and due to feature in a documentary later this year.