The central practices of Jewish life — prayer, study, celebrating, caregiving — require community. Communal institutions organize people together for the collective pursuit of sacred purpose and for mutual support. In the midst of a pandemic, we are discovering new ways and structures for cultivating community even as our buildings are closed and we practice social distancing. What are we learning right now about new strategies for overcoming isolation and building community? When public health requires social distancing, what changes and investments can we make in our institutions so that they can serve our communities in the present and in the future?
RRC graduate Rabbi Nathan Wiener addresses the challenges that synagogue leaders and congregants face as they navigate Jewish community during COVID-19. Drawing on Jewish values and teachings, he proposes a “COVID Covenant” to help us all honor the sacred synagogue/congregant relationship.
“The sages of the Mishna as quoted in Pirkei Avot, often disagreed sharply. They did so, though, “for the sake of heaven,” with good intentions for how to best shepherd Judaism forward, despite their differences, in a difficult time. Today, clergy and staff are working harder than ever to do the same thing; to create, engage, lead, and support in meaningful ways. Synagogue leaders desire to do it well. Let them know when they do, and lovingly hold them to account when they do not. Either way, now is the time to lean in. Do not separate yourself from the community.”
Jodi Lox Mansbach, an urban planner by training, is the Chief Impact Officer at the Jewish Federation of Atlanta. She observes that the pandemic will focus our attention on space. With this heightened awareness, two seemingly contradictory trends will accelerate: First, hyperlocalism, since neighborhoods and micro-communities have never mattered more. At the same time, a renewed sense of peoplehood, because we are newly reminded of the need for coordinated responses.
“Hyper-localism and the collective: These can seem at first blush to be contradictory trends, but they are each important to consider in Jewish life. Now is a profoundly important time to consider how we gather – and to envision what we want to cultivate in our communities with a strong sense of belonging. That will surely look different than it did 10, 20, 50 and 100 years ago. I believe that changes to how we think about our Jewish places will accelerate coming out of the pandemic in ways that will further address how we live, work and experience meaningful community.“
It is likely that synagogues will not be able to accommodate their usual crowds — if they re-open for services at all — during this High Holidays. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, encourages observant liberal congregations to subdivide their congregations into networks of home-based micro-minyanim.
“This is the moment for observant American liberal Judaism to unify the synagogue and the minyan. The synagogue is ultimately at its best when it is a framework for expansive community; the minyan provides intimacy, obligation, and participation at a level that the big synagogue can never fully offer. We will go back to the big synagogue experience at some point in the future. But the big takeaway from the strange High Holidays of 2020 could be that we will go back emboldened and empowered: instead of streaming services in which we were observers, we led our way through — together, if temporarily apart.”
Cyd B. Weissman, Vice President of Innovation and Impact at Reconstructing Judaism, observes that in this time of crisis, the Jewish community is benefiting in unanticipated ways from investing in relationships.
“…until now, I’ve thought of relationships as the means to uncover pains and gains – needs and desires – that directs creation of effective Jewish engagement. That’s all true. But there is more. Crystal clear to me, now, is that all the coffees, the story sharing and listening, and the showing up, has resulted in the cultivation of a most rare commodity in our society. Trust.”
Rabbi Jon Spira-Savett reminds us that for many of the people who most savor the High Holy Days in shul it will not be safe to be out in public in September. At a time of year when our prayers ask ‘Who will live and who will die?’ congregations can demonstrate that they take responsibility for life and death by daring to cancel large High Holiday services and offer alternative ways of celebrating the new year.
“We might set up shofar tours, the way school teachers are now going around neighborhoods today, so that the sound is heard by every last person at their home. We might organize group gatherings by rivers and streams for Tashlich ceremonies. We would bring people together in small groups, in person if possible or on Zoom if necessary – for mussar reflection and work, for Torah learning, to listen and talk to a caring professional about a theme or practice related to change or renewal. We would relaunch our Chesed (caring) Committees to refocus on our connection to the most vulnerable — the people who would still be confined because of medical condition or age, the people who have lost income, the people suffering from ongoing stresses or the aftereffects of this spring and summer.”
Andrew Keene, a member of the Management Committee of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, calls for a shift from developing programs to creating a shared immersive Jewish platform for engagement. A program orientation requires organizations to be perpetual creators. A platform nurtures a rich ecosystem, cultivating interaction and relationship.
“As Jewish organizations, we are often in the business of community, and communal organizations are by nature platforms! While you can join an organization, you cannot buy community, or pay more to get more community. Community is a platform that requires active participation – the more people that co-create the community, the larger and stronger the community is. Any rabbi, executive director, layperson, worship leader, or teacher, can alone create a program, but not a community because it is… communal.”
Months of isolation from synagogues, schools, religious non-profits and other internal social spaces will affect the Jewish community even when the threat of the virus dissipates. Hannah Lebovits, a Ph.D. candidate in urban studies and public affairs, invites us to think about the future of Jewish spaces.
“Just as COVID-19 has forced us to rethink the ways we live our secular lives, revitalizing our community after this crisis will require our leaders to reconsider their own deeply held views on religious life. I don’t want my children to spend every Shabbat trying to remember what once was. But with a bit of thoughtful work, they will gain tremendously from the Jewish spaces that can be.”