Rabbi I Have a Problem

Will Jewish life change as a result of coronavirus?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi discuss issues in contemporary Jewish life


QUESTION: As we emerge from lockdown, is there anything about Jewish life you think will, or should, change?

Rabbi Brawer: I think two remarkable changes have occurred as a result of the lockdown and, to a greater or lesser extent, they ought to be incorporated into Jewish life going forward.

The first is the impact social distancing has had on the celebration of simchahs. Bar/batmitzvahs and weddings have been revolutionised. All external trappings; a fancy hall, photographer, band, expensive flowers and extensive catering have been stripped away. While such extreme curtailment is certainly not ideal, it does invite fresh thinking about what is important and what is trivial. 

I recognise that many businesses and livelihoods depend on the simchah industry and they provide value at important moments in people’s lives. I also recognise tastes and budgets vary widely. Still, I think the community would benefit from reassessing expectations and norms, which have steadily increased over the years. 

It’s not just a quantitative reassessment — in terms of how much is spent—  that is called for, but a qualitative one. How does a family’s celebration reflect their deepest values? A couple getting married may decide to invite a smaller crowd, or forgo other luxuries trappings and donate the money saved to feed the hungry, or to use it as a down payment on their future home.

Would it really be so terrible if occasionally families chose to pray at home?

Another positive impact of social distancing is the way in which parents have had to engage Jewishly with their children in far more direct ways than previously. In the absence of synagogue services with outsourced children’s programming, families have had to pray together at home. While there is certainly much to be said, both halachically and socially, for praying with a minyan, there are advantages to intimate family prayer. Would it really be so terrible if occasionally families chose to pray at home instead of attending services in synagogue? 

Likewise, for those accustomed to socialising over Shabbat and festival meals, children can often get shunted aside. Adults typically remain at the table, while children are excused to run off and play. Lockdown has meant parents have had to converse with their children over the Shabbat table.

After the lockdown, it would benefit families to balance socialising with time alone. However, not everyone lives within a family. Lockdown has been cruel and challenging for those who live alone, particularly during Shabbat and Jewish festivals, and for them, the lifting of social distancing cannot come soon enough.

Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer chief executive of Hillel, Tufts University


Rabbi Romain:

Jewish life will not go back to normal —  the way it was before — and nor should it.

The coronavirus has forced us into new methods of doing Jewish, while it has also exposed outmoded ways which we never had the courage to change until now.

The use of Zoom — which many people had not heard of before March of this year — has suddenly become an indispensable tool for Jewish life.

Adult education had been available online for some time, but largely from professional institutions or individual teachers; now Zoom sessions from one’s local synagogue have exploded for both adults and children to compensate for the closure of classes.

Similarly, shul social events that had to be curtailed, from book circle to friendship club to annual quiz, now continue via Zoom. In many such cases, they have an increased attendance compared to their previous footfall, with those unable to attend beforehand joining in.

It is more than likely that when lockdown ends, we will initiate a two-tier system with all such activities becoming available both in person and online. It may mean a lesser physical attendance, but this will be offset by the much greater participation.

This applies to funerals and shivahs, too. Previously it felt almost ghoulish to record them; now we have appreciated how much Zooming them enables relatives from far away, and especially those abroad, to join in.

This divide also applied to saying Kaddish

From now on there will often be a computer screen on the lectern at the cemetery prayer hall and at the crematorium; also on home mantelpieces for shivahs, while I reckon it will be on many a Seder table.

There have long been calls to permit products that are intrinsically kosher l’Pesach, rather than insist they have a special Passover label. The “concession” granted this year showed that it was always possible and should not be re-imposed.

In addition, the virus has highlighted key differences between Progressive and Orthodox communities: the former livestreamed or Zoomed Shabbat services, so members were not deprived of their L’cha Dodi or Torah reading; the latter felt unable to do so.  

This divide also applied to saying Kaddish; the Orthodox held that it can only be recited if there is a minyan in person, while the Progressives said that seeing each other by Zoom fulfilled the requirement. This, too, will become the “new norm” in future.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue 

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