Keeping the Faith: What Will the Future Hold for U.S. Synagogues Post-lockdown?

Rabbis across America are hard at work on plans to reopen their shuls. Despite the ongoing health crisis and financial fears, many still see the year ahead as a time of opportunity. One thing’s for sure: Things will not be as they were before the coronavirus

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An illustrative photograph of a Jewish man wearing a protective face mask and laying tefillin on his arm, at the Great Synagogue of Marseille, May 28, 2020.
An illustrative photograph of a Jewish man wearing a protective face mask and laying tefillin on his arm, at the Great Synagogue of Marseille, May 28, 2020.Credit: AFP
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

Rabbi Joshua Davidson feels the weight of the current health crisis as he stands in a cemetery, leading burial services for victims of the coronavirus.

“When you’re standing with families at the grave, and a mother and son can’t even hug as they bury their husband and father, 6 feet has never looked like such a long distance as it does in this moment,” says Davidson, who leads a large reform congregation at New York’s Temple Emanu-El.

The pandemic has upended the way of life for Jewish communities worldwide. Over recent months, synagogues have had to reimagine ways in which they can offer a sense of community to congregants at a time when gathering is not an option. Shabbats and bar mitzvahs on Zoom have become a reality for American Jews. But as talk of reopening America gathers speed, rabbis across the country are preoccupied with planning for Jewish life after lockdown and wondering how much of this “new normal” will simply become the norm.

Rabbi Joshua Davidson of Temple Emanu-El in New York City.Credit: Naomi Ellenson

Creativity in adversity

Temple Emanu-El, the largest Reform synagogue in New York City, has, like many others, moved its activities to the virtual world since the coronavirus struck. “None of our programming or worshipping has stopped, but obviously it’s different,” Davidson tells Haaretz. Attendance to services and other programs online has been “higher than it ever has been in person,” he notes.

That seems to be a common trend: Many of the synagogues that have held services, Torah studies and educational programs online during lockdown have reported increased attendances.

“It turns out that when people can turn on their computer and join a weekday minyan or join a Torah study class and they don’t have to get in their car and commute, more do it,” says Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, who currently serves as CEO of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and will soon take on the additional role of CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Blumenthal says he has been “impressed and even amazed” by the creativity of synagogues, and their ability to “adapt really quickly to a big change” and create connection. He hopes this spirit will continue “long after this crisis hopefully goes away.”

On a Saturday night in mid-March, Rabbi Sholom Lipskar of The Shul of Bal Harbour in Surfside, Miami, was the first in his Chabad community to be diagnosed with the coronavirus.

“I immediately sent an email to the entire community, and that night the entire community shut down, everybody went into quarantine,” he recounts.

Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, spiritual leader at The Shul in Miami, Florida.Credit: Courtesy of The Shul

That swift action, which came earlier than in other Jewish communities, is what he believes spared his community “from any serious matter.”

Since then, his synagogue’s employees have been in “a spiritual war room,” brainstorming ways to connect the community.

“We’ve been able to sustain a serious program, even during complete lockdown and quarantine, because we have an average of six to eight classes every day on Zoom,” Lipskar says. “We made sure that we have direct contact with almost every member of the synagogue on a regular basis,” he adds.

For the recent Shavuot holiday, for instance, the shul rented an ice cream truck for distributing not just frozen treats to the community but also booklets explaining how to celebrate the festival marking the receiving of the Ten Commandments. “It’s important to get people inspired and upbeat,” he says.

Praying ‘outside the box’

With fall on the horizon, spiritual leaders are now anticipating the High Holy Days – traditionally, synagogues’ busiest time of the year. “I haven’t stopped thinking about it,” Davidson admits.

On a typical Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur service, some 2,500 people gather in the iconic sanctuary at Temple Emanu-El. Despite social distancing regulations and crowd limitations still set to be in place then, Davidson remains confident that the synagogue will “be able to welcome everybody who will want to come. And then, of course, the services would be streamed online.”

He continues: “My strong sense is that not everybody is going to feel comfortable attending in person; some populations will feel they’d just be more comfortable watching at home. We’re thinking through all of the contingencies and planning for ‘in-person’ – but also planning for online, should we be limited to that.”

In the small Jewish community of Galveston – a Texas island located just south of Houston – Rabbi Matt Cohen of Temple B’nai Israel was terrified when he held his first-ever Zoom Shabbat service in March. Never having used the video conferencing software before, he was sure something would go wrong.

Two months on, though, it has become almost routine with Cohen holding a virtual service every Friday night. But the High Holy Days are “a different situation,” he says.

Temple B’nai Israel Rabbi Matt Cohen in Galveston, Texas.Credit: Danielle Ziri

“Doing a High Holy Day service on Zoom the way that we do Shabbat seems inconceivable,” Cohen tells Haaretz. “Now, we’re all kind of thinking outside the box: What is the essence of the High Holy Days and how can we meet that need without doing what we always do?”

Rabbi David Wolpe of the large Sinai Temple in Los Angeles believes it is “virtually certain” that no congregation in the United States is going to be able to gather on the High Holy Days.

During a recent Zoom chat hosted by the American Jewish Committee, the Conservative rabbi said he was concerned with “preserving our authenticity as much and as long as we can, until we can be fully authentic again.

“We’re trying not to lose people, to give them genuine content and to hold them as close as we can,” he added.

According to Blumenthal, the Conservative movement has been preparing for the two festivals in September for weeks already – from releasing guiding materials about how to use technology on the High Holy Days, to thinking of innovative ways to hold certain ceremonies while maintaining safety.

“Congregations are already thinking about creating squads of shofar blowers who could go to different communities and have everybody gather outside of their homes, on their porches, to be able to hear the shofar,” he said, referring to the Jewish New Year tradition.

Financial hit

As the United States came to a grinding halt this spring, it quickly became clear that the coronavirus was not just a health but also a financial disaster, including for religious institutions.

Earlier this month, a report in the Forward revealed that the Union for Reform Judaism was forced to lay off about 20 percent of its staff, in addition to organization-wide pay cuts of between 3 and 16 percent.

According to an internal email quoted in the report, URJ leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs said the organization was “now at the point that the long-term viability of the URJ is at risk if we do not reduce personnel costs further.”

Temple B’nai Israel in Galveston, Texas.Credit: Danielle Ziri

The Shul’s Lipskar notes that “every synagogue relies on donations. When people are struggling to put food on the table and pay rent, all of a sudden their donations go down to the bottom of the list.

“Many people who under normal circumstances were major donors – all of a sudden have gone through major relapses in their businesses and their economy, and we know that things are going to be a little more constricted,” he says. “When there’s no cash flow, it’s hard to ask people to give.” Although his synagogue has received some financial aid from the U.S. government, Lipskar and his team have been discussing how to manage the crisis.

“We had the same crisis in 2008. And what we did was we had a 20 percent across-the-board salary cut so we didn’t have to fire anybody,” he explains. He adds that The Shul’s 40 or so staffers are prepared for such “necessary small sacrifices.”

At New York’s Temple Emanu-El, Davidson says some congregants have lost their jobs due to the economic situation, but he remains confident that “those in our congregation who are able to continue to give at the level they have been will continue to give.”

However, he stresses, “no one is ever turned away for financial reasons,” and “the most important gift anybody can give to our congregation is their presence.

“Far more valuable than their financial commitment is their willingness to attach their name to ours, because it signals that what we do matters,” he adds.

In Galveston, too, Cohen feels his small congregation is fortunate. This is thanks to “the foresight of people in previous generations who laid the foundation for us that if something should happen, we have the money to fall back onto,” he says.

“I think we’re gonna see a number of [synagogue] closings over the year if this doesn’t get any better,” he warns. “I have colleagues who have taken voluntary pay cuts; I have colleagues who have had to lay off their staff.”

The last time Jewish life took such a hit was over a decade ago with the 2008 recession. In the wake of that economic downturn, between 16 and 29 percent of Jewish households in three American-Jewish communities (Baltimore, Cleveland and Chicago) reported that financial costs prevented them from purchasing synagogue memberships; caused them to reduce their donations to Jewish causes; and, for those with children, prevented them from sending a child to a Jewish preschool or summer camp – according to a study released by the Berman Jewish DataBank in 2014.

“It is too early to know the long-term effects of this crisis,” Blumenthal says. “But we do expect that some congregations will consider either integrating aspects of their operations or merging as a result of financial pressures if conditions do not improve in the fall.”

The Shul in Miami. After 10 weeks on hold, it reopened for Shavuot and Shabbat services on May 28-29.Credit: Courtesy of The Shul

Reopening risks

U.S. President Donald Trump recently designated houses of worship as places that provide “essential services,” calling on governors to allow them to reopen immediately.

Following his announcement, the URJ released a statement saying: “We have known for millennia that houses of worship are essential institutions. While we long to gather in person, we believe that there is no higher value than pikuach nefesh, saving a life.”

Even though the state of Texas began reopening in May, Cohen has kept Temple B’nai Israel’s doors closed. Texans eager to enjoy the relaxed regulations headed for Galveston’s beaches in large numbers, causing the rabbi to reflect that “we’d be crazy to think this is going away anytime soon.”

According to Cohen, some of the local churches that reopened recently had “tens of people infected” within days and had to close their doors again. Reopening at this time, he believes, would be against Jewish values. “How can you live Jewish values and put people at risk?” he asks, adding that for now he prefers to keep services on Zoom.

“It’s better than nothing, and I think it’s much better than being in a room where everyone is standing 6 feet apart from each other with masks on. That wouldn’t even feel like the Judaism that has kept us,” he says. “Let’s say I do reopen and half the people or even three-quarters of the people that typically come are afraid to – now I’m leading a service for six people in a room and doing a Zoom call for everyone else. It just doesn’t feel like the Jewish community,” he sums up.

After more than 10 weeks on pause, The Shul finally held services at the end of last week for Shavuot and Shabbat. For the holiday, four separate services were held to “maximize” participation, attended in total by some 150 worshippers.

“We could have opened a week ago,” Lipskar explains. “But at the same time we said, ‘Let’s wait till Shavuot and see what the trend is, [see] if there are any spikes.’”

He says the first services went “extremely well – almost like clockwork. Everyone followed all the rules and regulations to the utmost, wearing masks, maintaining social distancing and each of the other protocols we instituted. As a result, we are contemplating a more regular schedule for services.”

In compliance with social distancing guidelines and to ensure there is a 10-foot space between all worshippers, fewer than 15 percent of the hundreds of people who usually attend services at The Shul are now able to physically attend.

Worshippers at Temple B’nai Israel in Galveston, Texas, in pre-coronavirus times.Credit: Danielle Ziri

Congregants are being asked to register for prayer quorums in advance, temperatures are checked at the door, masks are required and worshippers have to bring their own prayer books. Preparing and implementing the new regulations, Lipskar says, has been nothing short of “a strategic military operation.”

Still, as community members struggle financially, physically and mentally during the crisis, he believes that reestablishing the sense of community was vital. “There is nothing like personal contact,” he says. “You have to make sure the cure is not worse than the disease.”

Lipskar says of last week’s services: “It was an exhilarating feeling to be back in our community home and to have a communal prayer accompanied with singing and a deeper sense of connection and passion than I have experienced in the past, with each person really concentrating on their prayers and totally there in every way. The joy and appreciation on people’s faces was strong and noticeable. Even the priestly blessing was said with much more power and fervor,” he reports.

Both the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America had started prepping Orthodox congregations for reopening when they issued a letter in mid-May detailing the “principles that should guide the decisions and planning of synagogues and communities” in the United States.

“We must be clear: the COVID-19 crisis is far from over,” the organizations wrote in their statement. “We must proceed with caution, recognizing the immense gravity of the decisions we are making and their impact on the lives of our community members and fellow citizens.”

Losses and gains

Imagining Jewish life in America after the coronavirus crisis abates, Blumenthal says there will be “losses and gains.”

The online world is here to stay, he says. “There’ll be things we’ll want to experience on our computers, but there are other times when we’ll want to be in person. In fact, what happens online can feed into what happens in person.”

What synagogues need to understand, he adds, is that “their value won’t just be how many people might come into the building on a Shabbat morning. It might also be about how many other people they’ve engaged in their homes or on their screens over the course of a given Shabbat.”

He believes this will “level the playing field” for large and small congregations.

Temple Emanu-El in New York City in pre-coronavirus times.Credit: Danielle Ziri

“People who grew up in a small town may be able to go back to that small town, and may be able to go back to that small town on their computer screens to be part of that community for the holidays or on a Shabbat,” he says. “A small community might bring in a wonderful speaker and may be able to offer that to a whole network of congregations.”

The Jewish community was in the process of changing even before the pandemic, Blumenthal notes. “We had already expanded our understanding of ‘synagogue life’ to include what happens in people’s homes – and also in many cases outside” the synagogue itself, he says. “What we’ve now discovered is that there’s another space we also need to think about seriously: online, virtual spaces.”

Although he sees the post-lockdown era as “a lot of opportunity” for Jewish life in the United States, the conservative rabbi says there’s also a sense of loss that has come with the new normal.

“We’ve already lost the ability to come together in physical proximity, to be able to give each other a hug, to be able to look each other in the eye directly,” Blumenthal says. “Those losses are real, and we’re looking forward to when we’ll be able to do that again.”

When a woman called Sinai Temple’s Wolpe to ask how she could sit shivah for a deceased family member during the pandemic, he realized that in some ways, “the entire world right now is sitting shivah.”

“There’s a certain element of mourning, no matter what you do online, from the fact that you’re home, and we’ll see what the world will be like when we can go out again,” he said on the AJC Zoom chat, pointing out that Judaism is characterized by the idea of community.

“Online [activity] widens and shallows our community. Anybody can join, but they can also turn away at any moment, and it loses the organic and authentic connection that you have in person,” he said. “So I think of this in some ways as a stopgap measure.”

Wolpe also admitted to concern about the effect the current crisis will have on Jewish life and Judaism practices going forward.

“It’s going to be a very long time before everybody feels comfortable congregating again, and even then they’ll have been introduced to a new way to relate to one another – and I don’t know if they will universally abandon couches and Zoom,” he said.

'Silver lining'

Although community members have grown accustomed to practicing Judaism from the comfort of their own homes, New York’s Davidson doesn’t expect the phenomenon to affect “in-person” attendances.

“What I do anticipate is that all of the new tools Jewish institutions have found and mastered as a result of these circumstances, they’ll continue to utilize and develop,” he says.

An illustrative photo featuring the chief rabbi of Marseille, Ruben Ohana, during a morning public prayer at The Great Synagogue of Marseille, May 28, 2020.Credit: AFP

Indeed, with increased participation online, Davidson believes synagogues will have an opportunity to “capitalize” on that interest.

“I don’t see our traditions as weakening after this experience ends,” he says. “I think we’ll actually have learned more about ways of creating meaning than we would have otherwise.”

For Lipskar, the new normal may include many restrictions, but “normal is a relative process,” he reasons.

“Just the fact that congregants are able to come: The radical difference between being quarantined and isolated to all of a sudden being in a space with other human beings, listening to their sounds and singing together, having the Torah brought out, and participating in this communal connection and spiritual prayer – that already is a major positive move,” he says.

There is a “silver lining in the cloud,” Lipskar concludes: “There’s a new normal that I consider, which is another level of recognition, a reprioritization of priorities, of values, of relationships – which is important,” he says. “If we could keep this energy going, that’s going to be a fantastic new normal.”

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