I used to think that there were just a few different flavors of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. Now I realize that, despite my 54 years of identifying as Reform, what I really am is a Couch Jew.
I’ve been on the board of directors at Temple Tiferet Shalom (and previously Temple Beth Shalom) in Peabody for years, and it always seems to come up in discussions that people equate attendance at synagogue with commitment to Judaism. For a long time, I’ve argued that this is not true, that many people feel the commitment, identify with Judaism’s core beliefs, and live quite Jewishly, despite being three-times-a-year attendees. I don’t think it’s fair to judge people this way. We temple leaders tend to make all sorts of decisions based on Shabbat service numbers and how many people show up for temple programs, but as we’ve been learning lately, physical presence in the building might only be one factor out of many that we ought to look at when planning.
I can use myself as a good example. I work at a middle school, I serve on the temple board and a handful of committees, I am involved in a book club, I have chronic fatigue, and I have a husband, children, and dogs. By the time Friday night rolls around, I just want to put on my pajamas and sit in front of the TV. I usually don’t want to go out anywhere, let alone to temple and sit through services, despite the fact that I really like Shabbat with its music and liturgy.
Saturday mornings have no chance of seeing me go to temple since I usually sleep until noon, and weeknight programs feel impossible to me. Additionally, since I work, I can never even consider the daytime weekday programs that the rabbi runs unless they are during school vacations. All in all, if someone were to grade me on my temple attendance, I’d probably get an F.
Then came the novel coronavirus.
Not only has working from home been beneficial in terms of sleep issues, but it’s also allowed me to “attend” services in my pajamas or sweatpants. It doesn’t feel like a huge effort to get ready for temple or to actually go there. Instead, I can just turn on my computer and POOF! There is the rabbi, there is our music director or song leader, and here I am, participating with barely any effort needed. On top of that, my adult children who live at home are now also watching and participating in the services, and boy, does that feel great.
Another bonus is that if I need the bathroom or need some water, I can get up to do those things without feeling like I’m being rude to the rabbi or fellow congregants. I’m a Couch Jew! I feel like streaming services were made just for me!
I always had to go to board and committee meetings at the temple prior to COVID-19. Now, due to the building closure and social distancing requirements, we hold our meetings on Zoom, and again I feel like this was created just for me. I always had a hard time getting my act in gear to go to weeknight meetings, but now I just turn my computer on. I don’t mind participating in the meetings of the five committees I’m on, the executive board meetings, and the general board meetings. In the past, I was always too pooped to go to the adult education programs on weeknights, despite being interested in them, but now, since I can sleep later, nap, stay in a T-shirt, and not get stressed out about having to go back out again after work, I can enjoy all of the adult education programs I want. Again, I’m a Couch Jew!
Do I miss being in person with people? Of course I do. I am a real people person, and I’m a physical person, to boot. I am all about hearty hugs, touching an arm, shaking hands, and the appreciation of body language. At the same time, I am all about avoiding COVID-19, too, since it’s a terrifying prospect and I’m asthmatic and immunocompromised to start with. I’ve supported friends who had to bury parents who passed away from this virus, and I’ve supported those who have had the virus themselves. This pandemic is heartbreaking and brutal. Still, I am trying to look at this quarantine time as a gift in my case, one that has allowed me to enjoy and practice Judaism more than I ever have before.
Yes, getting groceries through Instacart is a giant pain and expensive, and yes, learning new technology has been a challenge, but I am still grateful. I have a healthy family, I see my students and colleagues online, and I love my temple more than ever before – just from my couch instead of in person. Here’s to all of the other Couch Jews out there – whether online or in the building. You are equally important to your congregation.
Jodi Coburn is a member of the Board of Directors at Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody.