June 20, 2024
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June 20, 2024
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The Future of Our Shuls Post-Pandemic

Future historians will evaluate the many ways that COVID changed the world forever. Some of the changes will be inevitable, thrust upon us by technological and scientific innovations, by habits formed during months of physical distancing, and by unforeseen ramifications of COVID-19. Other changes will be spearheaded by visionaries who were willing to question and evaluate the status quo during this time of upheaval, and chart new paths and directions for various industries, communities or institutions.

Keeping these thoughts in mind, we should pay careful attention to new trends or changes in religious behavior so we are better prepared to respond to those changes. More importantly, we should look for opportunities for growth and improvement, questioning some of the areas of religious life that are outside the realm of halacha, where there may be a better way.

Our communities have shown tremendous resilience in recent months, where despite severe restrictions in our ability to attend minyan in Shul, we have established temporary outdoor minyanim in large numbers, braving the elements and ensuring a continuity of tefillah betzibur, even if not in the ideal confines of the Beit Knesset. We hope to return soon in larger numbers to our shuls as the vaccine becomes accessible. When we do return, will shul life continue as it was, or will we use this opportunity to introspect for lessons learned during this pandemic? I offer a number of initial thoughts to guide and further this important discussion.

One size does not fit all.

Our shuls do not all look and feel the same. Geography, socioeconomic levels, hashkafa, levels of religious intensity, resources and their allocation, the age of members, and other factors all play roles in defining the character of every shul. As such, basic questions such as what drives most of the members to participate in shul life will be answered differently in various communities. For some, the opportunity to participate in tefillah betzibur may be the most important reason that they come to shul. For some, the social aspect of shul and feeling of community may be the top priority. For others, the religious needs of their children may be a top priority.

Any lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, should, of course, be applied and adapted to the unique character of one’s shul. During this long-term absence from shul many of us have had a chance to reflect on what we miss most about shul. Shul leaders have an opportunity to capture much of this valuable information through discussions, surveys or focus groups. They can then use this information to chart paths that will best reengage their communities in shul life.

Slow davening is not the same as long davening.

Any discussion of changes to shul life must keep our ultimate priority at the forefront of conversations. Shuls are locations where we can best develop our relationship to Hakadosh Baruch Hu through meaningful conversation in the form of tefillah. The more effort and energy we put into understanding and contemplating the words of tefillot we recite, the better. As such, a slow davening, commensurate with the realistic abilities of the community is to be lauded. Many shuls, however, extend davening to unrealistic lengths totally separate from this desired goal. If stretched too long, the tefillah can actually detract from our focus as it is very hard for many of us to concentrate for hours and hours on end.

There are a number of areas where the length of services should be considered. Do we really need an officer of the shul to read the announcements from a page that was emailed to us, was available for pickup in the shul lobby and is also posted on the bulletin board? Does every individual who gets an aliya really require a mi shebeirach? Plenty of yeshivos, where tefillah is taken very seriously, do not recite mi shebeirachs in between aliyos. And have you noticed that in many shuls the gap in between aliyos is when people start their side conversations that then often run into laining? The mi shebeirach for cholim is important, but how is it that we find the mi shebeirach list, which has not been updated in a long time, can sometimes be longer than the amount of people davening in shul? Is a long Torah processional before Torah reading really necessary? The answer to some of these questions may be that the positive outweighs the negative, but all of our shuls have the opportunity to reconsider these questions now.

Space matters.

Physical distancing at outdoor (and indoor) minyanim seems to have dramatically cut down on the amount of talking at many minyanim. The reason for this is obvious. It is a lot harder to talk to your neighbor when they are six feet away from you. While it is unrealistic to design shuls where everyone is six feet apart from each other, there are definitely a wide variety of shul designs that can inhibit or promote talking during davening. Shul leaders should consider this fact when designing shuls, but also when thinking about simple changes that could impact on the decorum. Many years ago, when I was an assistant rabbi in a shul, we decided to change the direction of the chairs in the beit midrash minyan to impact on the decorum. This slight change made it much more difficult to converse with others and led to a much quieter tefillah environment.

People are searching for meaning. Help them find it.

During the pandemic we have seen large groups of people who participate less in tefillah betzibur, but interestingly enough, we are also seeing many people who are participating more in tefillah betzibur. We should explore this phenomenon and look to build on it.

Some of the people I have spoken with find a block minyan more comfortable. They find a large shul to be impersonal and lacking the warmth they are seeking. They feel more comfortable walking into a backyard where they know everyone, and feel a stronger sense of community. Shuls must ask themselves how they can replicate these feelings of community despite their size. Megachurches with thousands of members have done a good job of creating community through small scale personalization. We can achieve this as well.

I have seen other people who have increased their participation because they feel that they matter and their presence is critical to the minyan. When 12 people form a backyard minyan and anyone can be sick or absent on any day, each person is needed to make a minyan. That sense of commitment is a strong driver, and individuals are happy to play that role, generally not feeling resentment over this new responsibility. How do we replicate this phenomenon so that every shul member counts?

There may be many other ways in which people have found meaning in backyard minyanim. We should continue to explore this question and apply what we learn to our shuls.

Democratization of experiences brings numerous changes.

Much ink has been spilled describing changes to civilization throughout history, as knowledge has become more accessible to the masses, whether decades ago, through the creation of what was then modern technology such as the printing press, or in modern times with the accessibility of information through the Internet. While we celebrate these changes, we recognize that they bring certain challenges as well. We have witnessed a parallel phenomenon with the emergence of numerous backyard minyanim. I have witnessed adults becoming a gabbai for the first time or leading a tefillah, even if an easier one like a Maariv for the first time. These experiences were celebrated, not only by the 40-year-old adult who led a Maariv for the first time, but by the entire backyard community who goaded him and coaxed him into gathering the courage to allow himself to be vulnerable as he stood up and led davening.

I have had the opportunity to watch my high school children lead davening regularly and take on all types of laining responsibilities (because someone has to do it). I watched my son in high school learn to blow shofar. And while I recognize that it will be many more years until he has the opportunity to once again blow shofar in shul, I hope that he will be able to use this new skill to help the infirm or elderly for years to come. Granted, the bar is lower in backyard minyanim, as we will and should continue to expect a level of competence from our baalei tefillah and baalei kriah. Nevertheless, we should consider whether we can create programs and initiatives that help develop these skills in adults and youth alike.

The democratization of minyanim has also, at times, created challenges. Some minyanim, I assume out of ignorance, have ignored basic zmanei tefillah, have violated certain prohibitions like amira l’akum or kiddush bemakom seuda, have no one to pasken tefillah questions on the spot, and have no one to control what, at times are inordinate amounts of talking during davening. I don’t believe that this is a common occurrence, but it does happen, and without a rabbi to guide and correct them, these mistakes tend to last longer than they would in a regular shul. My hope is that even these mistakes can be used as learning opportunities so that we can all do better.

Leadership in an unanchored world.

I believe that shuls also have an opportunity to fill a large leadership vacuum. This is true in a number of ways, of which I share only two.

Our world desperately needs strong values-based leadership. This gap has been felt strongly and reinforced with the passing of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l, who brought a moral clarity to our community and to the world in rare fashion. While there is only one Rabbi Sacks, we need multiple rabbinic voices, speaking for and on behalf of our community and Torah values. This, of course, must be done with wisdom and careful introspection, but it is desperately needed in our world today. I believe we saw a strong example of this in the spring when the RCBC showed strong and proactive leadership in addressing the global pandemic.

A second area where shuls can play this role is in developing communities that can overcome the negative trends developing in our era. Bill Bishop described a trend in American life over a decade ago that he called “The Big Sort.” We live in a hyper-politicized world, where each individual finds themselves in an echo chamber, hearing the news and opinions that they agree with, while any other options are censored out, either because of their choice of community, media and friends, or because of Internet algorithms. As a result, we have forgotten how to speak to those with whom we disagree. Shuls can choose to create deliberate communities where either politics are kept out of conversations so that people can find a space free of the chaos that intrudes on much of their lives or (my preference) where we are taught how to talk, befriend and value the opinions of those with whom we disagree. Either one will strengthen our community and ourselves by including multiple voices and will be a welcome and needed change that has been lacking during our absence from shul.

These are just a few of the topics that we should be considering as we prepare for our return to ahuls. If done right, shuls will become more important than ever. In a world where technology continues to intrude on almost every aspect of our lives, the one place that is free of modern technology and fills the basic human needs for meaning, connection, spirituality and community can become even more central to our lives and be a source of meaning and inspiration. Shuls are far too important for us to ignore these important questions.

By Rabbi Daniel Alter


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