This piece originally appeared in RRA Connection, the newsletter of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.
The last sixteen months of the pandemic have highlighted the necessity of community as something both poignant and urgent. With many of us physically removed from our “normal” sites of gathering (i.e., workplaces, schools, cultural venues, “third spaces,” places of worship), we’ve learned to cultivate relationships online, to use digital tools to create new places of meeting and connection, and to experiment with alternative and even more accessible forms of engagement. Despite the very real challenges of long-term isolation and Zoom fatigue, we’ve found new ways to experience community, to address pragmatic needs, and to fill our souls.
I have no intention of glossing over the intense grief and loss of this period of enormous disruption. But as the head of the Thriving Communities team at Reconstructing Judaism, I’ve had the opportunity to hear from folks in our congregations/havurot and beyond about their expansive definitions of pandemic community, and I’ve been deeply impressed and moved. As we begin to re-emerge and re-encounter the world, I want to share some observations about what we are just beginning to learn. We will not be “returning to normal,” as compelling as that might sometimes be to imagine, but rather, ideally, truly evolving in the ways that Reconstructionists are well-positioned to do. The next chapter that we are entering together — our “next normal,” if you will – requires that we live our values, balancing the “deeply rooted” with the “boldly relevant.” As we envision the future, we must understand both that online platforms have transformed the communal experience and that Reconstructionism is (still) anchored in community.
Online platforms have transformed the communal experience
The pandemic has led many of us to rely evermore heavily on digital technology to conduct some of the essential components of our lives, only accelerating a trend that was already underway. While many experts suggest that “tele-everything” will worsen economic inequality and erode individual privacy and autonomy, still others see in this development the potential for enhanced quality of life as well as increased attention to the need for policy reforms aimed at racial justice and social equity (Pew). In light of the very broad sense that — for both good and ill — the pandemic has not only hastened but irrevocably changed our use of digital tools to engage with the world, there are some long-term lessons that Reconstructionist communities can learn from our most recent experiments with shifting some of our functions online.
- Digital platforms lower barriers to entry for communal engagement. With our buildings closed and “normal” practice inaccessible, congregations innovated in all kinds of ways, and many saw participation rates rise. Local community members who previously had been homebound for logistical reasons such as illness or childcare responsibilities were now able to attend services on Zoom or through streaming platforms. Former congregational members who had moved away could now re-join their communities from across distance, making geography no longer an obstacle to participation. New people logged in to our virtual gatherings, perhaps following the advice of a friend or family member or having discovered our website – or our movement – while scrolling the internet looking for Jewish connection. Folks who might have been previously reluctant, unable, or uninterested to enter our doors were suddenly able to experiment with engagement.
- Ease of access allows us to be even more egalitarian and inclusive. Digital platforms allow us to invite more and perhaps different people into community, and to explore new definitions of belonging. Many congregations opened online participation for little or no cost, and categories of membership and dues are being called into question as we think about how to maintain and cultivate relationships. Because online gatherings began as a quick and adaptive response to crisis, their experimental nature has allowed us to lean into imperfections and informality. The stakes were lower, and we’ve been oriented toward change. While Zoom may have often come with technical glitches, it has also equalized us and required collaboration. The chat function allows us new points of connection during programming. Our cameras provide glimpses into each other’s lives; we now know each other’s kids and pets and wall colors as we “show up as we are.” Many of us have treasured this more intimate access to those in our community.
- Community is bigger than our building. The pandemic has demonstrated that our communities exist beyond our “bricks and mortar” institutions, and that people don’t need to be in the building to feel they belong. We are learning that community may not be defined by our building, or even by geographical proximity. The conventional wisdom that we have to meet in person in order to engage people, is shifting. While, for many of us, the building may still remain the cultural center of our community, we are learning that hybrid experience is a real option, and we have more access points.
- Online platforms have created new and meaningful choices. This time of enormous change has brought with it a rich proliferation of options for being in community together, and many of these offerings can co-exist with in-person gathering as we move forward. We’ve learned, for example, that Zoom shiva calls actually expand opportunities for comforting the mourner, providing precious connection with distant loved ones who might not otherwise be able to be present. Online morning minyanim allow for daily spiritual practice, and we might say kaddish or meditate or chant every day at a different values-aligned community without having to get in the car or be late for work. Religious school can be expanded to include one-on-one Hebrew tutoring with elders in the congregation. And it is easier to participate in the board and committee work of the community if not all meetings require a trip to the synagogue building at the end of a workday.
- We have the capacity to pivot more swiftly than we thought. The pandemic has created new opportunities for conversations about change and evolution and innovation, and Reconstructionist community leaders have been doing this together. Throughout the past 16 months, we in the Department for Thriving Communities have been holding Zoom gatherings for leaders that sometimes bring together more than 100 people from congregations and havurot across the movement to problem-solve and share their decision-making processes about the new experiments they’ve tried. This unusual time has enabled more radical change than we might previously have imagined, providing us with an opportunity for what Lisa Colton calls “productive disruption.”
Reconstructionism is (still) anchored in community
In a recent gathering with cross-movement leaders, Lisa Colton suggested that we take advantage of this disruption to consider how we might decouple function and form — to ask questions that would allow us to reconsider what community means as something separate from our institutional structures. We have learned that we can create connection in new ways – that we can create a feeling of belonging through online platforms that we initially adopted as an emergency solution. And yet we still know in our bones the importance of being together, in-person. We have a deep desire to hug one another and sing together and carry our Torah scrolls around the sanctuary. This too, is real. As we move toward “the next normal,” we must balance both the desire for tradition and familiarity with the possibilities and opportunities that we’ve begun exploring. We can remember that the previous “normal” was not actually good for everyone; that our Covid experiments have pointed to even more inclusive manifestations of our communities. We are creating communities of choice, communities of practice, and communities of care – communities that do not necessarily rely on physical buildings. Decoupling form and function, we can find inspiration in Mordechai Kaplan’s 1948 definition of community: “A community is a form of social organization in which the welfare of each is the concern of all, and the life of the whole is the concern of each.” Covid has reminded Reconstructionists of the mutuality and interdependence at the heart of our communities – of the obligation and interplay between the individual and the collective.
Toward the Future
As we move toward the future, we are holding these values dear while being open to what we have learned from the innovations of the pandemic. Here are some of the questions that we in Thriving Communities are asking now:
- What kind of leadership, management, and technological skills and resources do we need to best create and maintain hybrid community experiences?
- What does it mean to be a “member” of our community? Are we creating new categories of belonging?
- How do we ensure that both in-person and online participants in our programs feel actively engaged and connected?
- As we experiment with best practices for combining online and in person experiences, what’s the right balance?
- How do we cultivate relationships in a hybrid world?
Throughout these past months, Reconstructionist leaders have tackled such questions with boldness and creativity. We look forward to continuing to ask these questions together.