Opinion |

Will the Coronavirus Lockdown Fatally Weaken American Jewish Life?

Our synagogues are struggling. Our virtual, on-screen Judaism is flawed, limited, and deeply unnatural. But there is a way we can emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic as stronger communities

Eric H. Yoffie
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Pittsburgh’s Rodef Shalom Rabbi Aaron Bisno delivers his sermon to an empty synagogue, during an Erev Shabbat service streamed live on Facebook. March 20, 2020
Pittsburgh’s Rodef Shalom Rabbi Aaron Bisno delivers his sermon to an empty synagogue due to coronavirus regulations, during an Erev Shabbat service streamed live on Facebook. March 20, 2020 Credit: Gene J. Puskar,AP
Eric H. Yoffie

I miss my synagogue. I miss the rabbis and cantors. I miss the people who come to daven. I miss the schmoozing before and after Shabbat services, and the punch and cookies that we devour when the service is over. I miss the synagogue building where I have been worshipping for 37 years, and the safe and comfortable feeling that it gives me. 

I am also angry beyond words that these things have been snatched away from me by COVID-19 and the current administration’s incredibly inept response to it.  

And I am also deeply saddened that my synagogue — along with most synagogues in America — finds itself struggling because of this pandemic and worrying about how it will pay its bills and meet its obligations, both to its staff and its members.

And this too: I am growing tired of all the well-meaning people who keep trying to tell me how wonderful technology is; and how meaningful virtual Judaism is; and how beautiful lifecycle events can be on a computer screen; and how we are all going to emerge from this crisis better off, with new Jewish paradigms and a reordering of our Jewish reality.

And I am especially distressed that the Judaism-on-a-screen that has become our lot will not expire, as originally expected, before the coming of summer. What concerns me is that even as we begin to reopen the economy, substantial restrictions are likely to endure in our synagogues for 18 or 24 months, or even longer. What worries me is that the hoped-for vaccine will not materialize for years, and that I, as a 70-plus member of the "high risk pool," must resign myself to a Jewish life of prayer and study mostly in a 15.6-inch cyber shul, rather than in the synagogue that I love and that I see as home.

No one should think, God forbid, that I do not support the safety measures that have been urged on us by responsible government officials. Exactly the oppose is true. I am a fervent advocate of social distancing. I wear a mask in public spaces and use disposable rubber gloves in grocery stores. And I urge everyone I know to do the same.

Nor should one imagine that I do not appreciate and admire the efforts of rabbis and synagogue leaders throughout America who have filled the vacuum created by the pandemic with a breathtakingly diverse array of online rituals, worship services, study sessions, children’s activities, and cultural projects. Most of this material, assembled with astonishing speed, is thought-provoking and high-quality. I am in awe of their efforts. In a chaotic time of adversity for American Jews, the synagogue responded immediately, working overtime and exploiting technology to offer support and connection.

Still, let us have no illusions. We need to see virtual Judaism for what it is: A temporary expedient that helps us to feel less alone. It is surely better than nothing, and for most of us, considerably better than what we expected it to be. Indeed, the comment that I heard most frequently from Jews who had just experienced their first virtual Passover seder was "that was a lot better than I imagined it would be." 

But virtual Judaism is also flawed, limited, and deeply unnatural.  

We are social beings, hungry for human contact. As the saying goes, we need both the face and the Facebook. And this means that as Jews we want communities that are grounded, concrete, and tactile. In our synagogues, we give expression to this desire in a variety of ways--with physical gestures and the locking of eyes, or with hugs and back pats.   

Rabbi Shlomo Segal of Kehilat Moshe synagogue in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn checks who’s dialed in to his virtual Passover seder during the coronavirus outbreak. April 8, 2020
Rabbi Shlomo Segal of Kehilat Moshe synagogue in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn checks who’s dialed in to his virtual Passover seder during the coronavirus outbreak. April 8, 2020Credit: Kathy Willens,AP

Furthermore, technology is an imperfect instrument for embracing the spiritual. The picture is herky-jerky. Discussion is difficult. People forget to mute and unmute. Buzzing feedback disrupts our concentration. And singing together, an essential element of Jewish prayer, is simply impossible.    

But technical matters aside, the real issue is that virtual Judaism is religiously flawed.  

In Festival of Freedom, his book on Passover, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik discusses the seder. The seder is not simply a meal, Rabbi Soloveitchik explains; it is a se’udah.  Because human beings hate to eat alone, the Jewish tradition has created the se’udah as a vehicle that gives expression to our quest for sociability, togetherness, and community-mindedness.  

But the se’udah is more than that; it is also a covenantal feast, tying the Jew to God and Torah. Social and gregarious, Jews eat within the community and invite God to partake in the feast. By so doing, Jews who are normally shut up in their own small worlds coalesce into a community of God-seekers; in this way, Jews are redeemed from their historical loneliness.

Members of an Orthodox socially distanced morning minyan praying outside their synagogue, closed due to coronavirus precautions. Netanya, Israel. April 23, 2020
Members of an Orthodox socially distanced morning minyan praying outside their synagogue, closed due to coronavirus precautions. Netanya, Israel. April 23, 2020 Credit: AFP

And what does all of this mean for us? It means that the cyber synagogue cannot provide the full-bodied, authentic Judaism that is generated by face-to-face engagement and genuine, in-the-same-room seders, Shabbat meals, and communal prayer. It means that covenant is a collective concept, requiring both God’s presence and tangible company in the here-and-now. It means that technology has its uses, particularly in perilous times, but it is incapable of building permanent religious community.

If you doubt this conclusion, ask around. We can tolerate anything, but for how long? While the first wave of virtual prayer produced a surge in synagogue attendance, there are already signs of video fatigue setting in. For both children and adults, there is only so much time that one can spend staring bleary-eyed into the same old screen.

And what, therefore, should we do?

First, as long as public health requires social distancing, we will, of course, diligently follow the law, for our own sakes and for the public good.  

Second, we should avoid the temptation to become used to this new Jewish world. When physical attendance at synagogue becomes possible, we should quickly return, even as we follow whatever restrictions may remain in place.    

Third, we should recognize that virtual offerings do offer benefits in some cases. For example, those who are confined to home because of age or illness are grateful for the variety of virtual programs now available to them, and we should make every effort to continue them.    

But not everything can or should be virtual. We should beware, for example, of parents who want virtual religious school or virtual Bar and Bat Mitzvah lessons. The best way to learn Torah is to sit in the presence of a teacher of Torah. Martin Buber said long ago that the key to education is to rely not on machines but on the teacher’s personality, instincts, and intuition. 

And finally, if our synagogues have been strengthened by this pandemic, it is not because of the technology they have provided or the on-line services they have developed.  

In the book mentioned above, Rabbi Soloveitchik talks about the hesed community as the fundamental building block of the Jewish religious world. Hesed, according to Soloveitchik, is compulsive kindness and spontaneous sympathy, and a hesed community is built upon the dignified activism of hesed-experiencing, hesed-thinking, and hesed-questing Jews.  

Rabbi Daniel Schwartz reviews notes before livestreaming Friday night Shabbat service from Temple Shir Shalom, a Reform synagogue in West Bloomfield Township, Michigan, March 27, 2020
Rabbi Daniel Schwartz reviews notes before livestreaming Friday night Shabbat service from Temple Shir Shalom, a Reform synagogue in West Bloomfield Township, Michigan, March 27, 2020Credit: EMILY ELCONIN/ REUTERS

The synagogue, it seems to me, is the ultimate hesed community, and the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the synagogue to do what it has always done but do it more effectively and emphatically.  

And its greatest accomplishment is not online worship services but connecting Jews to each other, reaching out to the lonely and isolated, supporting the poor and shopping for the elderly, and teaching Torah to those who crave meaning.

But in the days ahead, all of this will not be enough.  

As our country faces continued economic peril and psychological torment, and the synagogue itself is severely challenged by issues of finances and membership, the solution will be much more than virtual Judaism.

Synagogues will need instead to hone their hesed instincts, which have already been activated but not enough. They will need to address the practical, political, and spiritual problems of the Jewish community and America at large. They will need to reach out to the most vulnerable populations — older adults and people with disabilities — in their own congregations and in the broader community. They will need to join the efforts to extend healthcare to all Americans.  

And they will need to offer Jews a sense of connection and belonging, while making the case to America that all Americans still need one another, and not just virtually.

Can the American synagogue do this, to save itself and to help America in its time of need? Yes, by understanding that we must resist the flight into solitude that the pandemic has imposed on us. By recognizing that technology is a helpful but limited and sometimes dangerous tool in combatting the isolation that we dread. And by remembering that hesed and the moral ideals of Torah are key, for they call on us neither to forsake nor accept the world, but to change it for good.   

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie

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