How Will Synagogues Survive?

It’s been a year since most American synagogues closed their doors. Will the practices they adopted to survive undermine their prospects when the pandemic ends?

A man setting up for outdoor services on September 18, 2020. ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images.

A man setting up for outdoor services on September 18, 2020. ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images.

March 1 2021
About the author

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His latest book, The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice their Religion Today, has been issued recently as a paperback.

This is the second in a series of articles about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on different sectors of the American Jewish community. The first, on the response of Jewish communal institutions, can be found here.

A YouTube video recently making the rounds imagines a time when the notion of synagogues meeting in their own physical spaces will seem bizarre. Set in the not-so-distant future, the video portrays a young woman responding with amazement when shown photographs of her grandfather’s bar mitzvah. Having only attended religious services online, she is shocked to learn that Jews once prayed together in buildings. Although the ostensible point of the video is to celebrate the adaptability of Judaism, it brings to the surface an often-voiced anxiety during the COVID-19 crisis: will American Jews return to their synagogues after the health risks abate?

As we mark a full year since the pandemic struck America in force last March, there is no simple way to predict the future of synagogues. In most of the country, a second Passover will be celebrated without regular synagogue services, and few are sanguine about large gatherings for in-person High Holy Day services early next September. But what we can determine are the ways that the coronavirus has affected American synagogues thus far. While media attention has focused, on the one hand, on ḥaredi (ultra-Orthodox) noncompliance with lockdown guidelines, and, on the other, on the difficulties of celebrating holidays without familial or communal gatherings, the actual data are surprisingly positive. There seem even to be blessings that have accompanied the curse of plague. But the question remains what the long-term effects of these blessings will be.

As part of an effort to track the impact of the health crisis on different sectors of American Jewry, I have gathered information on synagogue life virtually since the onset of the epidemic. This essay is based primarily on over 50 interviews with rabbis across the entire religious spectrum (with the exception of ḥaredi communities) to learn what is happening in synagogues of all sizes and in different geographic locales. I also interviewed professionals at denominational organizations of the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and Chabad movements. Further information was gleaned in informal conversations with lay people about what has been happening in their synagogues. Finally, much can be learned from visiting the websites of synagogues, which highlight all the options for participation by members.

The effects of the pandemic have been dramatic, particularly when it comes to worship. With few exceptions, synagogues closed their doors for much of last spring, and in many cases have not reopened their buildings for public prayer, study, and congregating, their three primary functions. And even those that remain open are not attracting the number of in-person worshippers permitted by government mandates, let alone returning to their pre-pandemic attendance.

Yet despite the partial or complete closing of synagogue buildings, much of congregational life has flourished, and seems to exhibit a newfound energy. Most mid-size and large congregations have been offering a rich panoply of programs online: lectures and classes for adults on everything from Talmud to cooking, “ask the rabbi” chats, exercise programs that can be done at home, meditation services, “how-to” classes about resilience at a time of crisis, and online gatherings for members to share news and simply to schmooze. In general, congregations have never offered as many programs in the past nor have they attracted such vast audiences from among their own members, not to mention visitors drawn from all over the globe. Classes, moreover, are being offered not only by synagogue staff but also by faculty at all the major rabbinical seminaries and adult-education centers. As for younger people, religious schools housed at synagogues have also gone online: not only do they offer their classes on Zoom, they also provide short, one-on-one Hebrew-language lessons to children. Even without open synagogue buildings, congregations are continuing to serve as virtual houses of learning.

With great effort on the part of clergy and thousands of volunteers, synagogues also have worked assiduously to connect individual members to their congregations. Teams of volunteers call every synagogue member at set intervals to ask whether they require any kind of assistance. Others shopped for fellow congregants who were unable to visit supermarkets or access online delivery services. To help those eligible for the vaccine but flummoxed by the arcane system of making appointments, tech-savvy volunteers, including teenagers, made the arrangements. The work of social activism continued as many synagogues sponsored programs, often with neighboring churches, to discuss questions of racial justice, equity, and the preservation of democratic norms. There has been no letup for synagogue members eager to work through their congregations to help others in distress. Even board meetings, now also held virtually, tend to attract larger numbers than in the pre-coronavirus era.

When possible, synagogues have also arranged for activities outdoors, or with congregants parked in their cars, from shofar-blowing on Rosh Hashanah to film screenings. The goal, as many rabbis of all denominations frankly state, is to hold their communities together despite the need for social distance.

As could be expected, larger and wealthier congregations have fared better. Not only are these better situated to cope with budgetary shortfalls, they often have a staff comprising five or six rabbis, cantors, and other professionals who can share the burdens of increased pastoral responsibilities—visiting the sick, ministering to the dying and their families, and counseling those suffering from solitude, loss of income, and fear—while also rising to the practical and technological challenges of arranging for safe worship. But in mid-size and smaller congregations, all these tasks fall to a single rabbi. The strain perhaps has been hardest on those synagogues without full-time clergy that depend on volunteers to keep services going; in these cases the outcome has varied greatly based on the capacities of these volunteers.

None of this has been easy. Across the board, rabbis report high levels of stress, fatigue, and loneliness. Reflecting the reality of many colleagues, a Conservative rabbi explained, “I’m working harder than ever in my 40 years as a rabbi and have come close to feeling burnout.” As is true of so many whose work involves much social interaction, rabbis have to juggle the demands of their private lives—children at home needing supervision, elderly parents who cannot be visited and properly cared for, spouses requiring emotional support or, for those who are single, more intense social isolation—all while attending to the myriad needs of congregants. These include officiating at funerals while maintaining social distance from the mourners; personally ensuring that congregants are not overlooked but checked on and supported properly; telling parents that the long-planned bar or bat mitzvah of a child can be attended in person, if at all, by only a few close relatives—and then dealing with their disappointment and occasional anger. And then, rabbis have also juggled responsibilities for organizing many new educational and social programs.

Most congregants, according to their rabbis, expressed gratitude and understanding at just how hard it was for the clergy and professional staffs of synagogues to pivot to new ways of doing things. Many volunteered their time or expertise. But some reported that a minority of congregants behaved more poorly than ever, perhaps because of the emotional toll of social isolation.


I. Keeping Congregations Functional


If there are many similarities in what congregations are doing as houses of learning and communal connection, greater variation emerged when it comes to public worship—much, but not all, attributable to denominational differences. Politics, and the highly politicized discourse about the coronavirus, have played a role: rabbis report having small percentages of their flocks demanding reopening as a matter of principle. But in general, with the exception of the ḥaredi communities discussed below, synagogues adhered to regulations, and in most cases practiced extreme caution when permitting in-person gatherings for prayer.

Geography tended to be one of the most important factors affecting responses: in urban areas, less space is available for adequate social distancing than in suburban ones; the virus struck some parts of the country more severely than others; and regulations vary from state to state and city to city. In the northern tier of the country, many synagogues that had taken their services outdoors between the spring and early fall either moved them indoors or stopped holding them altogether once the cold weather set in. Exactly the reverse has occurred in the South, where the heat precluded most synagogues from holding outdoor services during the warmest months, but the milder temperatures of the fall and winter did not.

Like most institutions, public and private, synagogues have suffered from considerable financial strains, but—contrary to expectations—congregations across the spectrum reported taking in larger sums at their annual High Holy Day appeals than originally projected. An additional saving grace for many synagogues has been the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, which has helped tide many synagogues over. By contrast, congregations dependent on revenue generated by their early-childhood programs faced shortfalls because many of these either closed for health considerations, were forced to limit the number of children in order to keep them safely apart, or faced the reality of much-reduced numbers because parents decided not to enroll their children. Perhaps most painful, a percentage of congregants informed their synagogues that they were “pausing” their membership during the pandemic crisis, a further budgetary hit.

On the whole, knowledgeable insiders express confidence in the measures taken by most synagogues to ensure their near-term financial viability.

One Reform rabbi noted that her congregation had a million-dollar budget shortfall—a 40-percent decline in revenue. Evidence of reduced giving to synagogues also can be gleaned from professionals in the philanthropic sector. Still, very few congregations have folded thus far, though small numbers appear to be teetering on insolvency and significantly more have laid off personnel so as to rein in their budgets. On the whole, knowledgeable insiders express confidence in the measures taken by most synagogues to ensure their near-term viability, even as they worry about financial shortfalls later in the year and in 2022.

This brings us to the biggest question of all, which is how Jews have managed to use new technologies to facilitate religious activities in the absence of in-person gathering, and especially gathering for prayer. The options range from simple use of a fixed camera, usually pointed at the prayer leaders, to more complex interactions where attendees can see each other, communicate both privately and with the group as a whole, and even exit to meet virtually in specially designated breakout rooms. With a little facility, videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom have been used to feature a cantor or musician at one moment, a rabbi offering a sermon or words of Torah at another, a congregant reading a passage from the liturgy, multiple readers sequentially chanting from the Torah, and so forth—even if these various participants are in separate locations. Here much depended on the technological abilities and resources of clergy, and the congregants willing to help them. Some simply balked at learning to use Zoom, Google Meet, and the like; others were excited by the possibilities and the greater willingness among their congregants to shake things up.

The biggest surprise of the pandemic comes from how successful these efforts to keep synagogue life functional and even inspiring have been, and the greatest cause for concern is that synagogues will fall victim to these very successes.


II. The Boons of Streaming


At a time when school, work, healthcare, and even leisure activities have largely moved online, the fate of synagogue life depends largely on attitudes toward the use of these new technologies on Shabbat, and similar considerations pertaining to Jewish law (halakhah). Let’s begin with those congregations who felt least constrained by such strictures. Across a wide spectrum of synagogue types, ranging from Reform, Reconstructionist, (many) Conservative, the self-styled “Emergents,” and Jewish Renewal congregations, the question was not whether to use the new media but how. Some congregations had flirted with the idea of livestreaming their services prior to COVID-19, and a small number had already begun to do so. These synagogues were able to ramp up quickly, and the rest shifted within weeks to virtual services.

The pressure to decide on a course of action was driven by several considerations, not least of which was the decision of a handful of the better-financed congregations to stream their services online for free. Clergy, lay leaders, and involved congregants routinely refer to Central Synagogue (Reform) and Park Avenue Synagogue (Conservative) as a shorthand for a new competitive pressure: how to retain dues-paying congregants who could now tune into any synagogue service anywhere and might be tempted to abandon their home synagogues.

In short order, almost all congregations on the liberal end of the spectrum began to broadcast their religious services on one or another online platform. Initial responses were dramatic: one Reform rabbi wrote about the doubling and trebling of attendees the first week his congregation had switched to online services and Shabbat-morning study, with screen visitors from all over the world, especially Asia. Within a month, the numbers dropped and primarily his own congregants showed up on screen.

A mid-size Reform temple that normally attracted 70-100 people to its Friday evening services suddenly got 250 to show up online, followed by another 1,000 during the week.

Many other congregations, though, saw not only a significant uptick in attendees during the services and study sessions, but also many hundreds, if not thousands, of attendees returning online week after week for prayer and study. Thanks to YouTube and Facebook, Jews and Gentiles around the globe learned about worthwhile services—and not only from the largest and best-financed congregations. From all reports, the increased viewership has held steady. To cite but three examples: a mid-size Reform temple on the West Coast normally attracted 70-100 people to its Friday evening services prior to the pandemic; once online 250 appeared during the service and another 1,000 during the week. A neighboring Conservative synagogue has enjoyed the same surge in attendance, even though it too is not one of the larger or wealthier synagogues; its service and sermons have become magnets drawing viewers globally.

On the East Coast, one Reform temple has counted many viewers who are not on its membership rolls, drawn from 46 states and 22 countries. Many of those viewers, particularly those in distant time zones, screened recordings of the Sabbath services hours after they had taken place. Remarkably, it has become evident that significant numbers of viewers tune in to Friday-night or Shabbat-morning services midweek. A Reform rabbi even received a thank-you email in mid-October from a congregant who had just completed watching Yom Kippur services—two weeks after the Day of Atonement!

What had begun as a stopgap measure suddenly began to look like a more enduring boon for synagogues.

Further underscoring that point, some liberal synagogues which had never organized weekday prayer now were petitioned by congregants to do so. Suddenly 40 to 60 people began to attend daily services because they found it a meaningful way to begin their workday or craved the chance to interact with other Jews during chat sessions after services. Some synagogues that had struggled to attract a quorum of ten before the coronavirus struck now found that 20 or 30 congregants joined online regularly. Clearly, something about the pandemic had motivated more people to join in prayer, perhaps feelings of isolation and anxiety. But there also were practical reasons: attendance did not require spending time traveling to and from the synagogue building; morning services could be held at a later hour because almost no one had to rush to the office afterwards.

Perhaps most intriguingly, some rabbis seized upon the inability of congregants to attend in person to fulfill a longstanding aspiration to decenter the synagogue as the primary, if not sole, place where congregants enact their Jewish lives. Adopting a Christian conception alien to Judaism, large swathes of Jews have treated the house of worship as the only setting where they engage in religious behavior. The pandemic has reversed this trend. With congregants situated in their living room or den, rabbis worked to educate their members about ways to bring Jewish rituals and practices back into the family home. Synagogues across the spectrum, including Chabad, prepared packages containing how-to guides about various Jewish rituals along with the associated foods, partially as a way to bring congregants to the parking lot for some connection with the clergy but also to instruct them in these home observances.

Bringing Judaism back to the home, one Reconstructionist rabbi remarked, “is something we always wanted.” Many synagogues delivered a Torah scroll to the home of a bar or bat mitzvah so the portion of the week could be read from there during a virtual service. The presence of the sacred scroll powerfully brought Judaism into the domestic environment. Or to take another example, a Reform rabbi self-consciously converted Friday-evening services into something he calls the Shabbat Table, which combines a highly modified service with instruction on how to observe the holy day at home. Even more obscure rituals, largely forgotten outside of Orthodoxy, have been revived. The same rabbi, for instance, combined the ceremonial counting of the days between Passover and Shavuot, known as the omer, with twenty-minute nightly classes.

Still, with all these positive developments, clergy across the religious spectrum were deeply anxious over the summer months about how to conduct the High Holy Day services, which, after all, attract the largest crowds of Jews to the synagogue, including many who otherwise attend rarely over the course of the year. As most congregations also link admission to High Holy Day services to paid membership fees and the sale of seats, there was much concern too as to whether congregants would remit their dues if prayer services would be online—especially when it was clear that joining a virtual service at many sites would not require any payment.

Almost all congregations abridged services—which normally range from three hours to all day, depending on the type of synagogue and particular holiday—to a more manageable two or two-and-a-half hours. But there were also opportunities for creativity. Some synagogues offered attendees “breakout rooms” for more interactive activities, including a virtual synagogue lobby where people could mill around and catch up with one another. Other rooms would engage in discussions about pre-announced topics, or even yoga or meditation sessions.

And others still took advantage of more sophisticated technological feats. Before Rosh Hashanah, a Reform congregation in Washington, DC prerecorded the shofar blowing at iconic settings, such as the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington cemetery, and then spliced these recordings into the Rosh Hashanah service at the appropriate places. During the Yizkor memorial service, some congregations flashed photographs of deceased members who had died during the previous year, thereby bringing home the fragility of human life during the pandemic. Especially in Reform temples, time was set aside to spur reflection through the use of media about the themes agitating many Americans over the summer—the Black Lives Matter movement, racial inequality, and environmentalism.

In the weeks following the High Holy Days, some synagogues sent out a survey to gauge how congregants responded. Others were flooded with mail or phone responses. The verdict at large was overwhelmingly positive, although lowered expectations may have played a factor. Tens of thousands of Jews clearly liked the high quality of productions offered by congregations that had invested in multimedia, pre-recordings, musical ensembles, and polished editing. Some congregations claimed to have attracted 30,000 or even 50,000 viewers of their High Holy Day services, though how long viewers stayed and whether these numbers were inflated is unknown. An uncounted number of Jews with no synagogue affiliation who in the past may not have participated in High Holy Day services at all were drawn to virtual prayer because it was free, required no planning, and, for some, alleviated fears of services they could barely comprehend but might not be able to leave. The virtual High Holy Days had eliminated all barriers to easy access and egress.

Congregations blessed with the financial means and media-savvy volunteers prerecorded all or major parts of their High Holy Day services. This involved a good deal of planning and editing: at one Conservative synagogue, for example, services consisted of 2,000 separate video cuts that required splicing together. But most synagogues, especially mid-size and smaller ones, eschewed that approach in favor of being true to their own distinctive style and traditions. Mainly utilizing Zoom, these congregations delivered live services led by the clergy from within the synagogue sanctuary mixed with readings and reflections offered by lay people from their homes. That kind of authenticity turned out to be highly appealing to most members who found the high production values sterile because their fellow congregants were nowhere to be seen. For them, it was the familiarity and continuity that so pleased them at a time of such disruption.

Some respondents to surveys conducted by synagogues and denominational groups thought virtual services were actually an improvement over in-person attendance. People who normally are seated many rows behind the bimah, the platform where “the action” of the religious service takes place, normally don’t see much. On screen, they had a perfect view of all the goings on. They saw the clergy up-close, as well as the faces of everyone given such honors as being called the to the Torah or opening the ark. When cameras were mounted above the Torah reader, they could follow along in the scroll itself. On Rosh Hashanah, they felt like they were standing next to the shofar blowers. A Conservative rabbi reported hearing a common refrain from congregants: “for the first time we can see and hear” the services.

And then there were family perks: parents watched the services at home with their children but did not have to worry about their kids making too much noise. To the contrary, parents and children were able to discuss what they were seeing. This was a family learning opportunity. And in cases where grown children or grandparents were living in different cities, all could attend the same service virtually. Even synagogue members who had relocated could join their former congregation because they were not limited by geographic distance.

Such positive accolades were highly pleasing to synagogue leaders. But rabbis also noted a few additional bonuses stemming from pivoting to online services. One was that congregants who were infirm and normally unable to attend were in the same boat as everyone else. Individuals who in the past could not be present were virtually called to the Torah. Some rabbis also reported that it was more feasible to involve congregants actively in reflecting on the grand themes of the High Holy Days (and at Sabbath services, on the weekly Torah reading) because in response to a prompt, virtual attendees could type their thoughts. In general, rabbis report that interaction with congregants has increased significantly. In sum, the worst fears about how poorly the High Holy Days would turn out did not materialize; and many of the innovations were widely appreciated by members, though we don’t know whether they will play as well if repeated this coming September.


III. The Orthodox Response


For the Orthodox, halakhic constraints on the use of technology have meant a very different response, even if there are some striking parallels. Most importantly, Orthodox Jews will not use any technology to screen services on Sabbaths and holidays, and even during the week consider it impossible to form a minyan (prayer quorum) through virtual attendance. They have thus relied much more on in-person gatherings. When weather allowed, synagogues organized outdoor minyanim in backyards or driveways, on the grounds of synagogues, on patios, or in other open spaces. Congregations lent Torah scrolls for use in these gatherings and provided an online platform for members to sign up in advance to limit the numbers of attendees.

Once colder weather returned, many Orthodox synagogues resumed holding services indoors, albeit with participants safely distanced from one another and masked. By all accounts, Modern Orthodox congregations took great care to ensure the safety of their members, developing distancing guidelines and limiting numbers allowed to assemble even more rigorously than required by government officials—often with the help of doctors, lawyers, and other professionals from among the congregants.

As widely reported in the media, some ḥaredi groups flouted those regulations. The results, tragically, became apparent when the numbers of coronavirus cases in those neighborhoods surged, as did death tolls. Many ḥaredi rabbis refused to shut down their communities, seeing a greater risk to their way of life in lockdowns than in the potential loss of lives; while others who took a stricter approach went unheeded. None of this escaped the attention of the media or some government officials who singled out ḥaredi Jews as reckless offenders. No small number of Modern Orthodox Jews, meanwhile, have been appalled by this misbehavior and feel that it has tarnished their own reputation. The gap between Modern Orthodox and ḥaredi Jews may widen further due to their disparate responses during the pandemic.

Like the other denominations, Modern Orthodoxy faces the challenge of what will happen when life returns to normal. Once services resumed indoors, men over the age of sixty were unlikely to attend in person due to health concerns, but younger men, especially the unmarried, also tended not to participate—likely seduced by the pleasures of sleeping late on Saturday morning. By staying at home, they were engaging in socially approved behavior. But will they return for regular Shabbat services when the communal sanction for nonattendance is gone?

By staying at home, Modern Orthodox men were engaging in socially approved behavior. But will they return for regular Shabbat services when the communal sanction for nonattendance is gone?

This question holds even more pertinence for women. Surveys conducted by the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America (OU) found that barely 20 percent of women attended religious services during COVID-19, including on the High Holy Days—a figure well below pre-pandemic times. In many cases women were asked to stay away in order to free more space for men to attend in person, with women’s galleries often occupied by men to facilitate social distancing. (According to rabbinic law, men are obligated to participate in public prayer, while for women it is optional). No one knows how Modern Orthodox women will respond once it becomes feasible and safe to return to synagogues. These same questions are even more pressing in smaller synagogues on the periphery of major Orthodox communities or in communities with less than punctiliously observant members. Attendance in those places is well below the maximum allowed by government regulations. It is not clear whether those congregations will rebound.

Ironically, Orthodox synagogues may also be challenged because some of their members found the coronavirus services they joined more intimate and personally meaningful than those held in conventional synagogues. The backyard minyanim are also free of the distractions of children running around; they move at a faster pace and usually include no sermon; and they are more democratically run. And for some of those who have opted to worship alone at home, that private experience has proved moving and spiritual. This potential problem mirrors that of liberal synagogues whose online services have shown themselves, at least in some respects, to be more appealing. How much pressure there will be to keep these informal minyanim going after the pandemic remains anyone’s guess.


IV. Conservative Dilemmas


As affiliates of the movement in the center of the denominational spectrum, Conservative synagogues have often found themselves in greater turmoil about newly emerging questions of Jewish law than either their Reform or their Orthodox counterparts. Unlike those to its religious left, the Conservative movement does not regard halakhah as an artifact of the past but as a living tradition; unlike the movements to its religious right, it is more open to adapting halakhah to new circumstances. Conservative Jewry also tends to see a greater gap in observance and attitude between clergy and congregants than is present among the Reform and Orthodox.

Though few Conservative synagogues recorded or livestreamed their religious services prior to the advent of COVID-19, once the pandemic hit and synagogues were forced to close their doors, a series of new questions arose about the uses of virtual technologies. Bar- and bat-mitzvah celebrations scheduled for the second half of March 2020 made the matter urgent. More generally, some congregants pressured their rabbis to take prayer online, and made clear that they would otherwise screen services from other congregations or organize private online services on their own. It was hard to resist pressures when congregants forcefully reminded clergy that so many other Conservative synagogues were “going on Zoom.”

In no other movement were rabbis as pressed to introduce new practices that offended their own understanding of Jewish law and in no other movement did so many rabbis have to contend with threats and overt pressure. One Conservative rabbi put his stance thus: “I made it clear that I would not violate my own Shabbat to bring it to others.” Another announced that his job is to make decisions based on halakhah for the congregation, not the other way around—otherwise, what did they need him for? Yet many other Conservative rabbis ruled that the extraordinary circumstances justified temporarily suspending some halakhic restrictions. This was not the first time in Jewish history when certain rules had to be waived in response to a crisis, they pointed out.

In no other movement were rabbis as pressed to introduce new practices that offended their own understanding of Jewish law and in no other movement did so many rabbis have to contend with threats and overt pressure.

In May, the movement’s law committee approved a responsum titled “Streaming Services on Shabbat and Yom Tov [Holidays].” Authored by Rabbi Joshua Heller and approved by a substantial majority of committee members, its guiding principle was “that any video option [should be] offered in a way that minimizes, rather than increases, violations of hilkhot Shabbat [laws pertaining to the Sabbath], and that there be at least some way, even if it is less convenient, to participate without such a violation.” Thus, it sanctioned livestreaming prayer services if the technology is turned on prior to the Sabbath or holiday and left on for the duration of the sacred day or days. The author of this ruling went so far as to arrange with the company offering Zoom to make it possible to keep that program running for up to 72 hours, so that it can be turned on for a two-day holiday falling right after Shabbat. Earlier responsa of the same committee were divided over whether a virtual gathering of ten people can constitute a minyan, which is required for the recitation of certain prayers—most importantly kaddish. To avoid glitches during the long High Holy Day services, quite a few congregations prerecorded the entire service and then streamed it on the Days of Awe.

Some Conservative rabbis who had been averse to the use of livestreaming gradually adopted the medium in light of the new rulings, but many others charted their own path. Convinced that holding their synagogue community together was the highest priority, large numbers adopted far more lenient positions, employing the technologies at hand to allow for more interactive online experience on sacred days.

By all accounts, the majority of Conservative congregations have done relatively well, whichever approach they have chosen. Neither synagogues hewing to the parameters set by the Heller responsum nor those eschewing virtual prayer services entirely suffered unusual losses of members. And those choosing to override halakhic limitations in favor of using electronic media in the most expansive fashion have, like their Reform counterparts, attracted broader-than-ever audiences. One West Coast synagogue of 400 member families reported that 5,000 screens watched its High Holy Day services and 940 appear as YouTube subscribers for Shabbat services. A survey conducted by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism found that 95 percent of responding congregations were pleased with the way the High Holy Days went.

Still, one consequence of the different approaches employed by congregations was heightened tension between members of the movement not seen in other denominations. Those rabbis who took the more lenient approach to technology were often highly critical of their more stringent colleagues. And some rabbis who gave in to the pressure of circumstances or their own congregants to sanction the use of technology on the Sabbath privately expressed a measure of discomfort with their decisions. As one ruefully put it, “rabbis are trying to keep the flame alive but are kindling it on Shabbat.”


V. The Genie, Out of the Bottle?


But while these tensions were felt most strongly in the Conservative movement, they were by no means unique to it. Across the spectrum, rabbis have begun to wonder, using virtually identical language, whether “the genie can be put back into the bottle.” It may prove impossible to unwind decisions taken during the crisis, especially when congregants ask for newly introduced practices to continue once the coronavirus has run its course. To be sure, some welcome what they believe to be long-overdue reforms in synagogue life. What could be wrong with using the wonders of the 21st century to eliminate the geographic, financial, and practical barriers impeding Jews from participating in prayer and study? Who can object to the increased attendance, the return of ritual to the home, the revival of weekday prayer services, and the prospect of congregants who normally come to synagogue a few times a year tuning in nightly to count the omer? For some, moreover, there is great value in leveling the playing field between synagogue members and non-members, the affiliated and the unaffiliated.

While all this may seem like a silver lining to the dark cloud of the pandemic, it’s necessary to speak of hidden costs as well as hidden benefits. Every synagogue, regardless of size, shape, or denomination, has found that no technology can replace one key part of communal life: the Kiddush, a buffet available after religious services when congregants mingle socially while enjoying light food and drink. Some may think it frivolous in the face of a global health crisis to highlight this loss, but in truth the opportunity to partake in these informal social gatherings is a major lure bringing people to worship services and other synagogue programs. As a Reform rabbi memorably put it, “Ethnic Jewish life comes alive at the Kiddush.” But even when synagogues have reopened, they have found it unthinkable to allow people to serve themselves at a buffet, unmask in order to eat and drink, and socialize in close proximity. As increasing numbers of people are vaccinated, and in-person worship gradually resumes, this important social lubricant will be the last thing to be reinstated.

But even a return of kiddush won’t be enough to bring everybody back to the synagogue. Many if not most congregants probably yearn to pray in person in their synagogue sanctuaries, but at least some will expect to continue attending virtually, and not only those who can’t attend because of physical infirmities or because they live too far from the nearest synagogue. Having discovered the joys of screening prayer services asynchronously, when it suits their schedules, they will not be so quick to return to the more limiting synchronous services. For all these reasons it is widely assumed that there’s no going back for synagogues that have shifted their services online, even if they also resume in-person prayer.

To a person, though, rabbis admit they haven’t a clue about how to create a compelling hybrid service where most congregants join together in the synagogue building, while a minority watch on their screens at home. With the inevitable time lag between live versus transmitted sounds, people on screen cannot be permitted to unmute and join in congregational singing. Bridging the divide between those seated in the sanctuary and others watching online will also prove trying to rabbis when they speak to their congregation, let alone try to engage them in a discussion about a Jewish text.

Or to take a second potential dilemma that cuts across virtually every synagogue, regardless of denomination: both those congregations offering virtual services and those meeting only in person shortened their prayer services during the health crisis, the former because of limited attention spans of people watching on a screen, the latter out of a desire to minimize the exposure of attendees to each other during a pandemic. Prominent Orthodox rabbis, for example, pronounced that it is not really necessary to blow 100 shofar blasts on each day of Rosh Hashana; 60 suffice. Liturgical poems also were eliminated in synagogues of all kinds. Will the Jews in the pews, who now have learned that it’s all right to dispense with parts of the liturgy, demand abbreviated services in the future? No doubt, rabbis will contend the changes were instituted on a one-time basis during a health emergency. Whether that argument will be persuasive remains to be seen.

Still a third complication arises from the use of online media. If, as Marshall McLuhan famously pronounced, the medium is the message, what is the message of virtual prayer? To begin with, how many people watching their screens on the High Holy Days actually prayed? Much has been said about the joy of members watching online services when they saw the faces of fellow congregants, heard the familiar holiday melodies. and engaged in chats online. But we know nothing about the extent to which virtual services were also active prayer experiences. Were most passive spectators, or were some also moved to utter the words of the liturgy and express what was in their hearts? Many certainly gathered around their computers with family members, watching attentively, but how many others listened in while they folded laundry or washed dishes? There is no way at present to answer these questions but much reason to worry that online prayer services are accelerating a trend to treat synagogues services, especially on the Days of Awe, as a spectacle to be watched passively, rather than a time of active prayer.

Moreover, what happened to congregational singing during online services? Over the past two decades, synagogues of all stripes have placed great emphasis on music as a means of inspiring participation and prayer. With screens muted, did viewers of online prayers join in song or did they feel uncomfortable singing along in the privacy of their homes? The rabbis of yore often quoted a line from the book of Proverbs, “in multitudes there is glorification of the sovereign,” to emphasize the value of large prayer gatherings. It’s hard to imagine that even those congregations claiming to have attracted many tens of thousands of screens successfully brought their multitudes to raise their voices together in prayer, a goal many synagogues accomplish when they gather their people in person, particularly on the High Holy Days. Participatory communal prayer may have been set back decades.

The pandemic, as a Conservative rabbi put it, “has fast-tracked every trend in the offing”—and some of those trends have not been constructive.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The pandemic, as a Conservative rabbi put it, “has fast-tracked every trend in the offing”—and some of those trends have not been constructive. One which has been around for decades is a tendency of many congregants to view synagogue membership as a transactional enterprise: I pay my dues in return for services the synagogue offers me and my family, not because I am invested in my synagogue, fellow members, and what my congregation means for Jewish life in my community. During the COVID-19 crisis, many synagogues of all stripes have lost members who forthrightly stated their lack of interest in continuing to remit their dues until such time when they receive the services they expect.

Precise data are hard to come by, but when informed observers in several areas of the country were asked about the stability of synagogue memberships, the best estimates for the 2020-2021 fiscal year projected a decline of between 10 and 20 percent. One Reform rabbi of a large congregation claimed a loss of 50 percent and a Conservative synagogue of substantial size is thought to have lost one-third of its members. And that happened in a year when many members still felt it important to help their congregations at a time of crisis. In private conversation, rabbis will admit that a second year without in-person High Holy Day services and religious-school classes may prove disastrous. Whether transactional members will return once the pandemic is under control is hardly a foregone conclusion.

The widespread adoption of online prayer during the pandemic, and the ability to surf the Internet to join the most appealing services, will only intensify this consumerist approach to Judaism. What percentage of members can a congregation afford to lose to free services before its infrastructure of personnel and physical facilities will become unsustainable?

A thoughtful staff member at one of the denominational organizations has speculated on one possible outcome of the embrace of commercial consolidation and online providers, two developments that destroyed many large businesses and smaller retail stores over the past few decades. There was a time, she notes, when local gas stations could be found in every neighborhood offering full service: they sold tires, repaired brakes, replaced mufflers, and fixed malfunctions in addition to pumping gas. Gradually, franchises opened chains of repair shops specializing in each of these types of services, depriving local gas stations of business, and eventually driving many into bankruptcy. Might the same happen with synagogues? After all, if two or three synagogues of each denomination offer high-quality religious services or feature extraordinary speakers and classes online, does the American Jewish community really need several thousand synagogues? Might they be poised to go the way of bookstores and video-rental shops in the age of Amazon and Netflix? How many Jews will pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of interacting with fellow congregants and a rabbi who knows their name?

No doubt, the answer is many, but it is far from certain that there will be enough to sustain synagogues as we have known them to date. Here, again, some may argue that the Jewish community can no longer support so much redundancy; perhaps the introduction of a new kind of competition will improve the synagogues that survive, provide a greater number of Jews with more meaningful synagogue participation, and free up human and financial resources for more effective use. If nothing else, many congregations may be driven to merge or close, more than a few of their members will disperse, and other members still will tune into a video temple rather than join a synagogue.

The word synagogue comes from the Greek meaning “to bring together,” and is a translation of the Hebrew beyt knesset, or house of gathering. As with regards to so many of the technological advances of the past few decades, from text messaging to online dating to Zoom schooling, we must ask what will be lost if our synagogues cease to be physical houses where Jews gather together. To raise these concerns is neither to prophesy a bleak future for synagogues nor to minimize the resourcefulness, creativity, good will, and exhausting efforts that have sustained congregations during the health emergency. Indeed, what we have seen suggests that American Judaism is far more vibrant and resilient than many might have expected. Yet as widening sectors of American society are vaccinated and the prospect for a tapering off of the epidemic is now on the horizon, the time has come for synagogues to contemplate the unintended consequences of policies pursued during the COVID era—and how to address them.

More about: American Judaism, Coronavirus, Politics & Current Affairs, Synagogues