How COVID changed Jewish life

Our very communities have changed.

MEN PRAY outside during the third nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, in Bnei Brak on Thursday. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90) (photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)
MEN PRAY outside during the third nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, in Bnei Brak on Thursday. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
(photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)
Our lives post-COVID will never be the way they once were. So much has changed. Too much has changed. We are not the same people we were a year ago. Our family life and our community life have been transformed. Our very communities have changed.
The sobering reality is that COVID has caused tremendous damage to Jewish community institutions. Synagogues may never regain their central roles in our lives. The vitality of Jewish cultural and religious centers has dramatically waned and will probably never return.
Jews enjoyed going to temples and to synagogues more for the camaraderie and the social scene than for the spiritual spin it added to their lives. They enjoyed seeing and being seen. Social interaction was the number-one reason people attended synagogues, according to an informal ad hoc survey I conducted among regular synagogue attendees. Next in reasons for attending came prayer and, with a wink and a smile, to hear their rabbi’s sermons.
People, not just Jewish people, enjoy socializing with like-minded people. It’s what happened at water coolers before most workplaces became remote workplaces. It’s what happened after work when restaurants and bars were open and social distancing never entered our minds, let alone ruled our lives. It’s what happened after prayers at a kiddush, at bar and mitzvahs, and at annual fundraising galas and dinners.
Jews like hanging out with other Jews, and there was no better place to do that than in their places of worship. In my unprofessional poll, I was told again and again how these “members of the tribe,” as we often call ourselves, enjoyed sharing their lives – from the everyday, mundane details to the emotional, impactful events – with people with whom they shared something else of importance.
Jews yearn for and thrive on community. It is our sense of community that lends support and connection to something bigger than ourselves. Community gives us a sense of safety and purpose, or it did, once upon a time.
COVID changed everything. We can pretend, we can do our best to replicate the real experience, but Zooming is not congregating. Shortened versions of our prayer services, limiting our time together as a group, is the antithesis of congregating. Drive-by simchas, festivities, especially do not allow for congregating.
WE ARE NO longer congregating. And that’s a good thing. It’s the smart way to behave during the pandemic. It’s the safest way to lead our lives and remain alive. But synagogues and temples are, by definition, congregations. That is how the Hebrew term for the word synagogue actually translates. Beit Knesset means “place where one congregates,” and “synagogue” is the Greek translation of that term.
Those hardest hit by the changes to our traditional synagogue model, changes wrought by COVID, have been the elderly. The irony of it all is that older-age cohorts who now have the time to go to synagogue and attend prayer services without rushing have no services to attend, no programs in which to participate, no classes to choose from and no nosh to enjoy. Never underestimate the importance of nosh.
They are themselves a community, now a fractured community. They are the community that is at highest risk from COVID. They are the group of men and women who once made up the backbone of attendees in daily prayer services, communal programs and activities in synagogues. Today they are the people most loathe and fearful of going out to group functions and, often, most illiterate and least adroit in computer use. They are the least likely to partake of the ersatz communal experience we have integrated into our lives called Zooming.
I gave a lecture to a senior group of women several afternoons ago, and dozens of women participated. It was inspiring. Many of these women had not seen their grandchildren or great-grandchildren for nearly a year. Some have not left their homes except for doctors’ visits. They are rightly afraid of this deadly virus. Their food gets delivered to the door. They are, although physically mobile, technically homebound.
The lecture was not on Zoom or on the computer. It was on the telephone. And many of them were listening to me on landlines. I delivered my presentation as if it was still the year 2011. It was an old-fashioned conference call.
Jewish community leaders have always struggled to be relevant, to engage and to attract followers, participants, parishioners. No one saw COVID coming. No one would have imagined the changes and the damage that would ensue. COVID has ravished our community. We will survive. Through creativity and caring, our religious community and cultural leaders can help us not only survive but thrive. They need us – and we need them.