Opinion: Reevaluating the centrality of worship in synagogues – the pandemic as both challenge and opportunity 

  

During my 30 years as a pulpit rabbi, a major focus of my week was the Shabbat worship service. While it is true that we all do much during the rest of the week, Shabbat and holiday services are seen by congregants and clergy as the center of our congregational lives. Education and social action also may be important elements of our congregations, but the worship service has been the most accessible way for our people to come together, participate on any level that they wish and identify with their Judaism.  

COVID-19 has hit us hard in that realm. We may have been able to replace in-person services with streaming worship, and we may be reaching more congregants than in the past, but this also has its problems. We lose the intimacy we have enjoyed; we lose the socializing of the oneg or kiddush, the individual and small group conversations; and those members who lack the technological ability to join us are excluded. On the plus side, as we are hopefully now moving away from this, we have an additional tool to keep certain people connected in a new way. We may, however, be missing another important opportunity to grow in new ways as faith communities.  

Rabbi Steven Adams

In the last seven years as a chaplain in a senior care facility, I have seen aspects of religious community life that are often overlooked in our congregations. I am still involved in worship services, but they are a small part of what keeps our community connected. Social occasions are most important to older adults who have been separated from the life and support systems of their past. Education is essential in keeping the mind functioning, which helps keep the body healthy. Yet, personal, one-on-one visits with people mean so much. In synagogues, especially large ones, we do not have the time to visit with most of our people. Visits would allow us to hear what they really need and perhaps what others also need from us.  

I also supervise a group of volunteers who visit residents and have become extra eyes and ears for me. The residents find comfort from this connection, and it has helped us avoid many of the problems other communities experience.  

If the flip side of crisis is opportunity, the flip side of the COVID-19 pandemic for congregations has been the opportunity to develop a side of congregational life that is often its weakest link. Our healthier congregants can be encouraged to make calls to those less able to take care of themselves. Often these are people who were the backbone of the synagogue in the past but have now been forgotten because we do not see them anymore. Perhaps they need help getting groceries, or connecting digitally with relatives, friends, and other loved ones.   

A large part of our identity as Jews (as with all faith communities) is reaching out to others in need. We now have an opportunity to expand our role in this area and other often overlooked aspects of community. If we build on these aspects of our community now, when the pandemic is finally, totally over, we will be much more dynamic as faith communities living up to the highest ideals of our heritage.