No one disputes that we are living in challenging times. And there are tremendous challenges which Covid-19 has posed for the Jewish community. This is also a time of tremendous innovation.
For each challenge below, there has been a “virtual” innovation. A few examples:
-life cycle events now include only immediate family (when permitted) and most guests “attend” Zoom brisses, baby namings, b’nai mitzvah, weddings, funerals and shivas
-Jewish studies classes for all ages—from Hebrew School to adult education—no longer meet in person—they have lost the “in person face-to-face touch” but have increased attendance as they transitioned to Zoom
-Minyanim (prayer services with a quorum) are no longer in person, though we are slowly easy back to outdoor or small group, by pre-reservation. However, Zoom has made it possible for people to say kaddish with a community, and attend seders with family members thousands of miles away.
-Nearly every Jewish summer camp is cancelled—and virtual summer camping is taking off. Campers (and sometimes family members) attend Kabbalat Shabbbat, Havdalah, color war/Maccabiah, dancing, singing, challah baking and more.
The Jewish community is wondering what the “new normal” will look like down the road. What will life cycle events, Jewish education and synagogues look like? Here and now, synagogue leaders are considering dozens of scenarios for what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will look like—practically and financially. What will synagogues do on the three days a year when the entire (dues paying) community is unable to come together? Will members tune in from home? Pray in small indoor spaces? Pray in the parking lot outdoors, weather permitting? Take a family walk in the park? Have a shofar blower walk the streets so all can fulfill this mitzvah?
While this is an unsettling period, I am confident we will find ways to innovate. We have been doing that for all of Jewish history. Read about Yohanan ben Zakkai, and some of his important enactments. We transitioned from a Temple-based religion, to one that thrives all around the world without a central temple. We transitioned from karbanot (sacrifices) to prayer. We are in transition.
This is a wonderful opportunity to reconsider how we do things in the Jewish world. Do services need to last 3-1/2 hours on Shabbat mornings? Might some students benefit from Jewish studies instruction partially online? (I am finding many students do very well with 30 minute Jewish Studies and b’nai mitzvah lessons on FaceTime).
Some wonderful “adjustments” have been happening naturally. To respect social distancing, I have heard of shuls meeting in person—outside, or inside with space markers on the floor. And, when it gets to the torah reading, no one ascends the bima. Imagine that?! There are two options: the torah reader says the blessing before and after all the aliyahs, or the honoree says the blessing from his or her spot. Imagine how beneficial that would be at all times for some older people, or others with mobility issues. Maybe there are halachic ways to better use technology for everyone’s benefit.
As the saying goes, where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way. I hope these tough times will continue to lead us to innovate.