Will the coronavirus pandemic make synagogues obsolete?

RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS: Corona restrictions have forged innovations that could alter the way Jews pray.

AN OUTDOOR minyan prays in Modi’in, September 2020. (photo credit: DEBBIE ZIMELMAN)
AN OUTDOOR minyan prays in Modi’in, September 2020.
(photo credit: DEBBIE ZIMELMAN)
Asher Zeiger, 55, an online Torah teacher, is usually a big shul-goer. Either he’s in his home in Modi’in, where he and his family are members of two synagogues, and where he often leads the prayers or reads the Torah, or he spends the holiday with good friends in Beersheba, where he also often leads part of the prayer service.
This year, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, he didn’t even go to shul.
A new survey by the Israel Democracy Institute found that only 34% of the respondents intended to attend even part of the synagogue prayers on Yom Kippur, down from 54% last year. The survey was taken before the closure that was imposed on the eve of Rosh Hashanah was tightened even further this week.
“I had signed up for the hashkama minyan [the early prayer service that usually starts at 6 a.m.] but I overslept, so I just prayed at home,” he said. “I missed the whole community coming together and certain tunes that I really enjoy, but it also meant I could set my own pace and concentrate on the prayers that I found more meaningful than others.”
The second day, he said, when the shofar was blown, he made more of an effort to get to synagogue, despite the early start. That service in synagogue was also much shorter than usual – under two-and-a-half hours from start to finish, including the 100 shofar blasts. Zeiger said he was surprised by how meaningful the prayers were for him.
“It felt more spiritual and powerful than a longer tefila [prayer],” he said. “I knew the reason we were doing it is that the people running it wanted to look out for our well-being, and they were trying to find a balance between the spiritual value of the tefila and the reality of dealing with COVID. Religious Jews are living in an unrealistic time, and we see people going to one extreme or another. This felt like a loving and sensible middle ground.”
All over the world, Jews have had to change the way they pray, particularly on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when synagogues are especially crowded. In Israel, worshipers are coming up with creative ways of praying together and separately, given the corona restrictions. Some say that even after the pandemic ends, the changes may remain.
AT KEHILAT ZION, which describes itself as “an egalitarian Eretz Yisraeli community in Jerusalem,” Rabbi Tamar Elad Appelbaum found a unique way to hold Rosh Hashanah prayers. Before the holiday began, the community recorded all of the Rosh Hashanah prayers and the shofar blasts in the presence of a minyan of 10 people for each service. The prayers were then put on a “gal shaket,” a special broadcast frequency that is turned on before the holiday begins and stays on the entire time to avoid turning on an electronic device, which Orthodox Jews do not do on the Sabbath.
While the community welcomes all types of Jews, Appelbaum herself is religiously observant, so she wanted a solution that would not violate Jewish law. She said that 23,000 people “tuned in” for at least part of the services, a huge number relative to Israel’s population.
Zion also held services in person, outdoors, with about 60 people attending. She said the pandemic has offered a unique opportunity for synagogues to grow.
“In our community, we’re really listening to this moment and opening and expanding all the doors of possibility,” she said. “Accessibility was always a value for us, and now it’s even more important. We have to be radical and enable as many people as possible to feel inclusion.”
She said it is wrong to talk about going back to the way it was before the pandemic, and she says that some of what she has learned during this time she wants to maintain.
“We are learning how to become better, more inclusive, and more sensitive to people’s needs,” she said. “It is our obligation to reach out to every person and make sure that nobody is without a tefila.”
The pandemic has also led to hundreds of new neighborhood minyanim in courtyards, parks and backyards. Often neighbors who barely know each other will find themselves praying together.
In Ra’anana, Stephanie and Paul Freund were among the initiators of a new neighborhood street minyan called Minyan Nachshon Darom, named after the street where they live. She jokingly refers to her husband as the Nachshoner Rebbe, playing on hassidic groups that have their own rabbis.
Stephanie Freund said the minyan started on Purim, when the government regulations said that anyone who had traveled abroad in the past few weeks was allowed to attend only gatherings of fewer than 100 people. Her husband, who travels frequently to the UK, was part of this group, as were several friends who needed to say kaddish.
It began with a megillah reading in the Freunds’ house, and has now expanded to a minyan that prays three times a day during the week as well as all of the Sabbaths and holidays. For Rosh Hashanah, they asked community members to donate funds, and bought fans and pergolas for shade. The men pray in the street in groups of 20 according to the government regulations, and the women pray in their driveways, front yards or on their porches.
Freund says that several Sephardi families have joined as well, and they read the Torah from a Sephardi-style Torah that one of the worshipers had in his house. A carpenter friend built them an ark for the Torah.
“People love davening under the stars, especially on Friday nights,” she said. “There is a tree in my neighbor’s garden where about seven different birds come right around sunset, and it’s been uplifting for the soul.”
The prayers have made neighbors on their street into friends.
“We have one Israeli neighbor, a lawyer, who barely talked to us because he didn’t like the house we built,” she said. “Now we pray together in the same minyan.”
Her husband, who organizes the prayers, said he had always wanted to organize a minyan that starts at 9 a.m. on Shabbat morning, late by Israeli standards.
“You know that line from Field of Dreams?” Stephanie asked. “If you build it, they will come. Well, that’s what happened here. It’s the building of a new community.”
At a similar neighborhood minyan in Jerusalem, Cheryl Birkner Mack said that the experience has transformed her relationship with her neighbors.
“I knew some of the neighbors well, some less well, and some not at all, but after weeks and months of praying together I have come to feel a strong connection,” she said. “While I prefer an egalitarian prayer, I’m happy to stand with my family and neighbors while the men take turns leading the prayers. While I miss my regular synagogue and look forward to being with longtime friends there, I will miss the convenience of opening my door and joining in the prayers. I will, however, continue to enjoy the comradeship of my neighbors.”
IT IS not clear whether these changes will continue even after the pandemic ends. Dr. Yonatan Moss, a professor of comparative religion, says that gathering for prayer serves an important social need.
“The importance of social gathering in religious identity is not something that will go away,” he said. “I think there will be an eager return to praying in synagogue, given that people have not been able to engage in that form of religious practice. At the same time, it depends on how long this goes on. If it goes on for a long time, people will get more used to alternative forms of religious worship.”
Moss said that one change that may become permanent is the shorter service. Many synagogues shortened the Rosh Hashanah service considerably, not wanting people spending too much time together, because of the fear of contagion. Many optional piyutim, liturgical poems, were left out, and prayer leaders were told to sing fewer parts aloud.
Another change is that many of these local minyanim, although Orthodox, do not have a mechitza, the traditional partition between women and men. In some cases, women and men from the same family are standing next to one another. This, too, could become permanent, Moss said.
Many synagogues also held several smaller simultaneous services to accommodate the government restrictions.
At Kehillat Yedidya, a Modern Orthodox synagogue of 200 households in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood (full disclosure: it is the synagogue I regularly attend, and I am a former chairwoman), there were six separate services on Rosh Hashanah, both inside and outside the building, attended by about 200 people in total. Prayer leaders were told to stick to a strict timetable.
Dina Weiner, a member of the board, spent many hours organizing capsules of worshipers and trying to meet everyone’s needs. While she welcomes the new neighborhood minyanim, she does worry that traditional synagogues could suffer.
“After this is over, people might choose to pray with their neighborhood minyan sometimes,” she said. “But we hope that Yedidya would continue to be their communal home.”