During the 1918 influenza epidemic, Los Angeles shut down all public gatherings, including religious services, for two months. The Friday night after the ban was lifted, the pews overflowed at Sinai Temple, where congregants were enthusiastic to pray as a community once again—and to listen to the newly hired cantor. David Wolpe, the synagogue’s current rabbi, wonders if the post-coronavirus reopening will have the same effect:
Judaism is a tradition built on community. Religion, said the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, is what a man does with his solitude. Not in Judaism. Some important prayers, including the kaddish for the dead, are to be recited only when at least ten people are present. In Hebrew, a synagogue is called not a “house of worship,” but a “house of gathering.”
Now when all the dinners and tributes and graduations are canceled, we mark them on Zoom—a frozen dinner in place of a feast. Rabbis around the world with whom I have spoken question the durability of ancient practices. How deep will congregants’ commitment to their synagogues be after months of this? . . . Each morning, we watch services on a screen instead of gathering in the synagogue. When the pandemic wanes, will we trade our sweatpants for suits and join together again? In a society where commitment to institutions is waning and “joining” is no longer the social norm, synagogue attendance was already on the decline. Will this pandemic accelerate the trend or (hope against hope) revive the need to gather in prayer and celebration?
My inclination is to believe that human nature is immutable, that when we take off our masks, we will rush, smiling, back into one another’s arms as people did a century ago. . . . But for all the certain proclamations about what the world will be like, we are none of us prophets, and so we wait to see whether the human hunger for community will override the lingering fear of illness and the frictionlessness of watching from a distance.