The coronavirus pandemic did more than create a health crisis, change the way we do business, reshape how we conduct social life, and upend vast areas of the economy ranging from downtown real estate to cultural performances. It also transformed the ways (and where) Jews worship and created a specifically Jewish crisis that poses fresh threats to the economic model that has governed synagogue life for generations.
Just as no corner of American life was left unaffected by COVID-19, vital areas of American Jewish life were changed utterly – in some cases for the better, in many other cases for the worse.
It is hard to find a silver lining in a vast dark cloud that so far has left 700,000 Americans dead – about 12 percent more than in the Civil War, the deadliest conflict in our history. But Jews who left the North Shore for Florida or Arizona have been able to participate in services in the very synagogues where their children had their b’nai mitzvahs and where they once crowded into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur observances. Disabled Jews shared more fully in High Holiday services, including Aliyahs that otherwise might have required difficult passages to the bimah. Families dispersed from Swampscott to Sacramento were able to share holiday greetings, holiday services, even virtual holiday dips of apple into local honey.
But though many people enjoyed watching services from their sofa in their pajamas, there is – as Gretchen Marks Brandt, the interim director of the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, puts it – “Something to be said for people coming and being present … There’s nothing like human-to-human contact.”
It would, moreover, be dangerous for Jews and Jewish leaders to ascribe the broader negative changes sweeping through Jewish life to the virus, which accounted for a sickness that has the danger of obscuring some threatening vital signs in the body of American Judaism.
It remains true, as Josef Joffe wrote in a chronicle of how Jews made it from the Lower East Side to Scarsdale (or from Blue Hill Avenue to Sharon), that “No Christian-majority nation is as ‘Jewish’ as the United States,” an assertion he defends in an article that appears in the October edition of Commentary by arguing – among other things – that “the Puritans returned to the Hebrew Bible, unearthing their faith’s roots in the Torah.”
But it also is true that, as the Pew Research Center study of American Jewry released this spring concluded, Jews are “far less religious than American adults as a whole.’’ Those findings make it clear that the pandemic is only distracting our attention from fundamental elements of American Jewish life that many Jewish leaders believe are threatened.
The figures are stark, even startling: One out of five Jews attend synagogue two days a month – far less than the broader American population, where about one- third of adults attend religious services as often. Nearly three in five Jews who do not attend synagogue regularly told the Pew interviewers that they agreed with the simple but troublesome statement “I’m just not interested.”
Half of American Jews say they seldom or never attend synagogue. Only slightly more than a third of Reform Jews, and slightly more than half of Orthodox Jews, live in households where someone is a synagogue member, according to the Pew survey.
And though some Jewish leaders may regard these findings as the fire next time – something to worry about after the pandemic eases – the fire is burning in Conservative congregations right now.
The average age of a member of a Conservative congregation is 62, higher than the figure for Orthodox (35) and Reform (52). The average Conservative congregant was born in the last year in which the price of a Coca-Cola – set in 1886 – remained a nickel and in the first year the Boston Red Sox permitted a Black ballplayer (Pumpsie Green) to wear the team’s fabled blue hat with the “B” in Old English type (Both occurred in 1959.)
“The pandemic sure hasn’t helped things,” says Ira Dinnes, former president of the Conservative Temple Sinai in Marblehead. “We are an older temple with older people, and we have been suffering attrition because our congregants have moved away, gone into nursing homes, or passed away.”
And though Dinnes recognizes that the virus has invited congregants to be involved online, “It is much easier to produce a sense of community when people can come into synagogue.” He adds, ominously: “I wonder if it is a sustainable model when you don’t have people showing up, making a new friend and doing this together.”
But it is clear that many of the steps taken by synagogues – and other Jewish institutions, including Jewish community centers and foundations – may become permanent.
“There’s no doubt that moving so much to virtual space has made people come to expect that synagogue can be a screen experience,” said Rabbi Danny Schiff, foundation scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “Once that takes hold – once people expect that – it will be very hard to go back. It diminishes the sense of community so much a part of the synagogue experience.”
And yet in a way, synagogue membership and synagogue life are only two elements of broader Jewish life.
In his “The Individual Jew and His Obligations” essay in the 1966 volume “The Insecurity of Freedom,” Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Our synagogues are beautiful, but [our] homes are a wilderness,” adding, “Jews attend Jewish meetings, belong to Jewish organizations, contribute to communal and national funds. But when left alone, or retired in our homes – they are poor in religious spirit.”
Rabbi Heschel, who died in 1972, believed the true goal was “becoming a Jew as well as belonging to a synagogue,’’ explaining, “Every individual is a pillar on which the future of Judaism rests. There is no vicarious Judaism; no institution can discharge the responsibilities of the individual.”
Even so, those institutions have found they have to change. The future may bring Zoom memberships for synagogues and, outside the Orthodox world, perhaps minyan requirements that accommodate virtual attendance in a post-pandemic world.
“Every organization needs to be relevant,” said Brandt, of the synagogue council. “There are times when they need to pivot to retain their relevance. What it means to be relevant may be dynamic.”
The crises of Judaism are always with us. This time it meshes with a health crisis, and that may make all the difference.
David M. Shribman is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He led the newspaper’s coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that won the Pulitzer Prize.