Coronavirus

After COVID, Reimagine Synagogue Life, Don’t Just Tweak it: A Response to Judah Kerbel

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Yechiel Shaffer

 

In a September 15 article, Jim Berry and John D’Angelo note that prior to the pandemic, the commercial real estate (CRE) field was mired in old school attitudes, largely defined by a refusal to change legacy practices and conventional ways of thinking. Yet in these past ten months, more has occurred to disrupt and advance the field than in the ten years prior. Berry and D’Angelo conclude, “We were expecting many job roles to evolve by 2025. Now, we anticipate that the roles could evolve by 2023, if not earlier. This is because COVID-19 has hastened the need to increase digitization, automation, and virtualization of work.”

Just as COVID-19 has brought to light the preexisting need CRE firms had to reassess their structures, synagogue leadership must recognize and endure the same heshbon ha-nefesh, spiritual accounting, if we want to emerge on the other end of this pandemic stronger and more effective. COVID-19 has highlighted for many congregations some uncomfortable truths that predated our current struggles. For us to embrace the present challenge, we must absolve ourselves of past assumptions about synagogue life and demonstrate a willingness to collaborate, rethink, innovate, and evolve.

Bearing this in mind, while my esteemed colleague Rabbi Judah Kerbel’s discussion of the post-COVID synagogue initiates an important conversation, it may not run deep enough. Is it really sufficient “that communal leaders articulate what we have to offer and make the case that being part of a centralized synagogue community is still a meaningful and worthwhile investment of time, money, and energy, even as they make appropriate post-pandemic adjustments?” Or do we have to confront some harder questions about the choices many are making regarding their communal engagement during this time?

Before any discussion about the future of our synagogues, we must first acknowledge the deadly toll this pandemic has taken on our beloved communities. While some have been relatively untouched, others have faced unimaginable adversity. Nobody – congregants or clergy – was ready for the enormity of what we have dealt with. To go forward, Rabbis must lead with empathy and understanding. It will be a long time until we fully internalize the toll that the last year has had on each of us. For congregants that have remained free of COVID-19, the sheer act of being in long-term isolation may leave profound effects on both mind and body. When it comes to religious life, many have found new freedoms and flexibility available to them like never before. A few examples come to mind, such as a parent’s ability to be present with their families throughout Shabbat morning, be home for bedtime with the kids, or have a meaningful family seudah shelishit. We must acknowledge that some congregants have found both more joy and greater meaning while at home. In private, at least some shul leaders are worried about the implications. If some of our congregants feel they are better off without us, what does this mean for the future of the synagogue?

Moreover, much like CRE, until a year ago, the synagogue space was often defined by rigid cultures and legacy rules that found a devout following. But if we’re being honest about what has appealed in the past to some devotees of Modern Orthodox communities, it might not be grounded in Halakhah or minhag. While we want our sanctified spaces to reflect certain Jewish values, the communal commitment to those values has long been limited. As some institutions attempted to raise the level of religious observance and spiritual engagement within Tefillah services, many congregants stepped away from the discourse and out of sanctuaries, and decided that davening is not for them right now.

Yet because communities have by and large grown within Modern Orthodoxy, it has absolved us all – rabbis included – of having to face a real crisis staring back at us in the pews: a crisis in faith as evidenced by a 2019 pre-pandemic Nishma research study[1] that suggests that only one in four Modern Orthodox people find Modern Orthodoxy to be inspiring. Put differently, for fear of inadvertently coming across as challenging traditional standards and cultural norms, we have knowingly missed the signs that a change has needed to come to the Orthodox synagogue experience for quite some time. While this change may be different for the wide variety of congregations, the opportunity of this moment is to think deliberately and thoughtfully about what we want our synagogues to become in the future, not how to maintain and tinker with them so that we continue the path of the past. We must ask ourselves: Can we take this moment to consider how to make our community spaces more personally meaningful, relevant, and compelling for the modern Jew?

For example, Kerbel identifies stronger engagement through technology as one of the innovations that synagogues should utilize into the future. “[E]ven as there is greater meaning to be found in live participation in shiurim, many people who do not typically attend shiurim in person did join on Zoom throughout the pandemic.” This perhaps unexpected level of engagement seems to indicate that people remain hungry for spiritual connection. Yet in some congregations, people have not returned in droves to communal prayer in person. Some sanctuaries still sit nearly empty despite approval for them to fill up again, with interested parties seated six feet apart for the time being. While there are many legitimate explanations for why many remain apprehensive to return to pray in their local synagogues, perhaps clergy members, myself included, also must acknowledge that communal prayer is not an easy point of entry for many congregants into synagogue life. Every synagogue that has struggled at any point with sustaining a daily minyan has known this for years before COVID-19 surfaced. If we emerge on the other side of this year continuing to believe that the main attraction of a synagogue is prayer services during prime time on Shabbat morning, we will have shown we learned nothing from this experience. Prayer is an activity we encourage people to participate in, almost the totality of the goal of a synagogue-centric community. And while hosting a regular minyan remains a critical component of an Orthodox lifestyle and community, it is not difficult to understand the challenges minyan attendance presents to the lifestyle of many of our congregants.

The success of and the story of the prayers that have taken place in person over the past six months have been in their efficiency. Rather than defaulting to the simplest conclusion – that most people are either frustrated with drawn-out services or opt to occupy themselves with other activities instead – let’s instead ask what about those recent experiences in backyards, in parking lots, and on rooftops made these synagogue experiences more tolerable and even enjoyable for participants. What about the more intimate minyanim has spoken to this limited number of people more so than usual and might even have uplifted their spirits, even awakening their souls? How can we leverage what we’ve seen within those experimental spaces and truncated services to spread the wealth and wisdom to those who have so far opted to remain at home? While the offerings of a synagogue before COVID-19 may have resonated and worked for many, and tefillah may be a worthy priority for a growing population, we cannot ignore those of our communities who find tefillah difficult and uninspiring.

Throughout these last months synagogue leadership has examined every prayer and practice within its service to evaluate whether it is critical to maintain, or can be dropped for efficiency and COVID-19 safety purposes. What if going forward we ask ourselves fundamental questions even when they are not driven by safety concerns? Every prayer, speech, campaign, and moment is an opportunity to engage and inspire, and should be managed with the congregant experience first and foremost in our minds. While acknowledging the obligation to pray, we also need to keep in mind the goals of tefillah. The Rambam in the third chapter of the Laws of Prayer and the Priestly Blessing describes the level of kavvanah – focus – one is required to have to to pray, and he describes that Sages would advise one who is weary from a journey to wait up to three days to regain the strength required to pray. The Shulhan Arukh: Orah Hayyim 98, in addressing the role of kavanah, also stresses the need for peace of mind, and describes the early pious people who would seclude themselves for lengthy periods of time in preparation for tefillah. Where does the preparation for avodah she-balev, “service of the heart,” fit into the functioning of our prayer services? Why should we assume everyone is ready to pray?

To take another example, like countless others, during this pandemic I’ve discovered that I too am most likely an introvert masking myself as an extrovert. After a big gathering such as a shul kiddush, I’m incredibly drained. Yet Kerbel’s argument assumes in part that social connection was a central tenet that has been crafted and cultivated by nearly all synagogues in the past, and that remains an important feature for us to recapture and recreate. I wonder if the contrary may be true: many of us have found more of our true selves and sensibilities through the limited social pressures during the pandemic, and the appetite to get back a shared, crowded space might not be all that large. Did we ever really have, “[a] community [that] can bring us those friendships, including with people of a different generation who have a lot to offer and teach us,” as Kerbel states, or does that remain a pipe dream for most congregations?

Simon Sinek, one of my favorite modern leaders, draws our attention to the need to balance the spiritual offerings that speak to extroverts, those who gain strength from social situations, and introverts, who find their strength sapped by those same experiences. Large minyanim that fulfill the mandate for be-rov am hadrat melekh, “the King is glorified among the multitudes,” may not be for everyone. We may need to consider that there are congregants who experience God in solitude and the kol demamah dakah, a still small voice. When we evaluate what may be the most halakhically ideal services for our communities, we must take into consideration our diverse constituents and what may or may not spiritually resonate.

In his famous 1978 article Rav Solovetchik reflects on the contributions of his father and mother to his religious identity. In describing the contribution of his mother, the Rav writes, “She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life—to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.” Our shuls need to offer both Mussar Avikha and Torat Imekha – fidelity to law, and the feeling of the presence of God.

Where do we go from here? Rarely, if ever, do we have the opportunity to design our communities from the ground up, first to envision and then to execute on what we would like to see happen. As we design our post-COVID synagogues, I would suggest we place at the center of this process our congregants and their spiritual wellbeing, while placing on the periphery the conventional needs of our institutions and previous expectations. As Tim Brown, Chair of the design and consulting firm IDEO, explains, “design thinking begins with what Roger Martin, the business school professor at the University of Toronto, calls integrative thinking. And that’s the ability to exploit opposing ideas and opposing constraints to create new solutions. In the case of design, that means balancing desirability, what humans need, with technical feasibility, and economic viability.”

What might this look like in practice? While there will be an array of halakhic questions that arise with such an effort, I believe we need to seek to differentiate our spiritual offerings. We must not assume that synagogue engagement begins only when someone chooses to participate in tefillah but rather seek to diversify what we offer and how we offer it. For example, I am considering, post-COVID-19, introducing an adult education program at my synagogue to run concurrently with our Shabbat morning tefillah services. We need to bring spirituality into our midst by starting from scratch in a way that most Orthodox rabbis have been reluctant to attempt previously by engaging in discussion with our congregants, and listening to what they have discovered about themselves these last ten months. While there may be a variety of considerations in any given community, we may want to consider other programs that connect people with each other around shared interests, like Richmond’s Jewish food festival, or we may want to consider modeling vulnerability within our shuls like this program on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Each year, Deloitte publishes a report titled “Global Human Capital Trends,” capturing how organizations may adjust their mindsets because of the trends they identify in disruptive practices. In their 2021 report, perhaps unsurprisingly Deloitte suggests that the disruptions we have faced because of COVID-19 will lead organizations to think about what needs to be done for their survival and sustainability. They say:

It’s our view that the shift from survive to thrive depends on an organization 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 every decision from a human angle first. And it’s not just a good idea, but a mandate for growth. Today’s environment of extreme dynamism calls for a degree of courage, judgment, and flexibility that in a world disrupted only humans and teams led by humans can bring…

Being distinctly human at the core is the essence of what it means to be a social enterprise.

Being distinctly human should be the goal at the core of everything that synagogues do. It’s the essence of what it means to be a spiritual and social enterprise. These are problems that have long existed; it has just taken a once-in-a-century pandemic for us to begin to seek out the right solutions. While many of the specifics described in this article may not be true of every congregation, the opportunity to design our synagogues with the goal of making them thrive in the future presents itself today like no time in our recent history.


[1] While some have criticized this study’s research methodology, we would be wise to pay attention to its conclusions that ring true, and that are bolstered by some trending discussion topics within the Modern Orthodox community over the last number of years, including Social Orthodoxy, half-Shabbos and discussions in these pages.

Yechiel Shaffer
Yechiel Shaffer is the rabbi of The Pikesville Jewish Congregation in Baltimore, MD and is the Midatlantic Regional Director of Synagogue Services for the Orthodox Union. He holds Smikha from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, and M.A. in Jewish education from the Azrieli Graduate School. He tries to live and lead with the values of tradition, truth and creativity as described by Brene Brown in her book, Dare to Lead. He can be reached on Twitter @yechields, Facebook at Facebook.com/yechields, and email at Rabbi@pikesvillejewish.com.