After COVID, is there a future for brick-and-mortar synagogues in the US?

DIASPORA AFFAIRS: With the coronavirus pandemic now entering its eighth month and strict Los Angeles County rules that have been in place since March, congregations are forbidden to meet indoors.

THE WILSHIRE Boulevard Temple features distinctive architecture and is a City of Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE WILSHIRE Boulevard Temple features distinctive architecture and is a City of Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
LOS ANGELES – Despite Los Angeles’ hodge-podge architectural landscape, among the myriad of synagogues catering to the city’s diverse Jewish community there are plenty that occupy brick-and-mortar buildings, several of which have become iconic landmarks.
With the coronavirus pandemic now entering its eighth month and strict Los Angeles County rules that have been in place since March, congregations have been forbidden to meet indoors. Many synagogues quickly pivoted to Zoom services and online learning, but with no idea as to when or whether in-service synagogue services will return, The Jerusalem Post spoke with several local rabbis about whether their physical synagogues could be reaching the end of the line.
On the same day the Post reached out to Rabbi Steve Leder of the Koreatown-based Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the Reform congregation issued a press release stating it was merging with University Synagogue in West Los Angeles.
“A lot of people are predicting the diminished relevance of brick-and-mortar synagogues, but I am not at all convinced,” Leder said. Referencing the merger, he added, “In fact, we are doubling down on brick and mortar by merging a smaller congregation into ours so that we will soon have three campuses rather than two.”
And while Leder called virtual Judaism “amazing,” particularly during the pandemic, he noted that it has limitations, “especially when it comes to replicating the feeling of being together, praying together, singing together with our arms around each other and catching up at the oneg or kiddush,” referring to traditional gatherings held after prayers featuring food and drinks.
Looking to the future, Leder said Wilshire Boulevard Temple will “have a parallel approach by which we will livestream much more of our worship and teaching, while it simultaneously takes place in the shul [synagogue].”
Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz of the Conservative synagogue Adat Shalom in West Los Angeles, noted that the pandemic had allowed the synagogue to expand its offerings to congregants.
“We invested in our building by installing cameras and increased our Wi-Fi capability so we could stream services from our sanctuary during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and on an ongoing basis,” he said. “That capability will serve us well even after we return to in-person services. We will make our services accessible to those who don’t yet feel comfortable returning and those who are ill, and those of our members who have moved away or who have moved into assisted-living facilities.”
Adapting to the times, he added, has always been part of the Jewish tradition.
“Long ago, we used to only offer sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. Now we all pray facing Jerusalem in our home communities around the world. That change took time, and we adapted to create communities of our own. So we must adapt to what works, and we must make the case for congregants to make the effort to return when it’s safe.... No matter what, nothing will ever replace the in-person experience of community, of sitting next to neighbors, friends and loved ones.”
Over in West Hollywood at Reform Congregation Kol Ami, Rabbi Denise Eger said her congregation has had a tremendous boost in online participation during the pandemic that has seen their congregation grow by 10%.
She too believes that the model going forward will be a combination of both in-person and online services.
“Our temple leadership is aware that even if we are allowed back into our sanctuaries and buildings, we will have to have a hybrid model. We have been upgrading our technology and Internet capacity at the synagogue in advance of this reality.”
She added that she is still grappling with how to better figure out communal singing and music.
“Once we have defeated COVID-19, I predict the synagogue will be a place where people once again gather to sing together. I look forward to that day.”
RABBI ZACH Shapiro of Conservative Temple Akiba in Culver City said, “Our ‘soulprint’ is much greater than our footprint. That said, our building represents light, hope and community, and we have great plans to broaden our impact both on- and off-campus in the years to come.”
He too said, “We need to be prepared to broadcast our offerings as a regular option. I believe some will prefer to stay home while others will want to be in person. This hybrid will present a new set of challenges. But, hey, as a rabbi, I was trained to do whatever I can to connect with people.”
At the Conservative Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Rabbi Ed Feinstein said, “COVID has forced us to separate and isolate. People are craving connection and community. We had hundreds of people meet us in the park for tashlich [prayer said during the High Holy Days] – not because of the religious content, but just to see one another after a summertime apart. When the pandemic passes and we can gather again, we will understand the value of our community institutions in a way they were never understood or appreciated before.”
He added that while he believes virtual services – which Valley Beth Shalom has implemented – are an effective substitute for the pandemic.
“There is no replacing the power of presence in a religious setting. When we are permitted to return, we will cherish the experience.”
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld of Conservative Temple Beth Am (TBA) in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood said, “In a topsy-turvy world, people will need ballast and familiarity and the nostalgia of things old and stubborn and resilient, like in-person prayer in sanctuaries, more than they needed them before, not less. So, our brick-and-mortar legacy synagogue will need to be both nimble and traditional.”
Zoom programming has bolstered his congregation during the pandemic, and going forward, Kligfeld said, “What we have offered digitally will be an even more robust way for those forced to stay home due to illness and age to be able to connect to the community... but I venture to guess that the overwhelming number of [local] folks who will want to check in to TBA’s Shabbat and holiday programs will do so in person.”
He added that he is grateful to Zoom but, “I miss people, and hugs, and chats about things important and unimportant over bowls of cholent. And Zoom can provide none of that.”
In Downtown Los Angeles, Craig Taubman runs the non-denominational Pico Union Project. There is no membership model and Taubman actually sent out a survey to attendees asking if they would prefer to stay home and attend services virtually. Some 95% of PUP regulars responded that they were looking forward to a return to in-person programming.
“The pandemic required the PUP to pivot or perish,” Taubman said. “We pivoted quickly, creating services, concerts and learning programs. Not bound by geography or time zones, these programs have had over one million views, far greater than ever imagined. We do not know what the future will bring. What we do know is that online learning and gathering is here to stay and that the PUP is anxious and ready to lead the way in partnership with the Jewish community.”
Whatever the “new normal” will be at synagogues, Feinstein summed it up noting, “Darwin showed us it is not the strongest but the most adaptable who survive. Big shuls can become small shuls if they fail to adapt, but if we become overly seduced by virtual Judaism to the exclusion of in-person Judaism, it will be to our own peril. If we are creative and nimble enough to combine the two successfully, we will see increased growth and relevancy as a synagogue and everybody wins.”