We all suspect that Jewish life will change after the pandemic, but the full implications need to be spelt out.
A key factor will be the willingness to adapt to the single most significant work and personal revolution over the last year: the widespread use of the online video service Zoom.
While many Jews will wish to return to in-person services, there will also be those who find it difficult (be it because of distance or disabilities) or who have simply got used to praying from home. Will we cater for them electronically or abandon them?
This will highlight the divide between Orthodox and Progressive synagogues, for whereas the former feel unable to use Zoom on Shabbat and festivals, the latter see no problem with it. For the former, it desecrates Shabbat; for the latter, it enhances participation.
Reform and Liberal shuls will Zoom or livestream all services, and their rabbis will have a dual audience: those in front of them and those online. This will also happen with home ceremonies and may apply across religious denominations, with many a household having a computer on the Seder table to link up with relatives elsewhere in the country or abroad. Similarly, on a Friday night, many families have become accustomed to lighting candles together and having a “Shabbas catch-up”.
Will rabbis smile approvingly or sternly tell them off?
Cycle-of-life ceremonies will now be instantly international too, with no one ever having to miss out on baby blessings, bnei mitzvah, weddings and funerals. The change will be even more noticeable at shivas, where relatives and friends from afar will not only look on, but participate, sharing their memories of the deceased.
It may also become a new annual ritual to watch the recording of the shiva at subsequent yartzeits, both to relive the experience and to catch the tributes that were not taken in properly at the first one.
A new development for many shuls was setting up “telephone trees” (though some had them already), through which, for instance, ten members each phoned ten other members to check up on their welfare. This might now become a regular six-monthly event.
Conversely, the pandemic may speed up the death of shul magazines — which are expensive to produce and post — to be replaced by weekly email updates.
There will also be two very immediate Covid consequences.
First, synagogues will need to work hard to attract members back who have become accustomed to not attending – for habit has always been a powerful but under estimated religious motive. A series of creative and engaging social and cultural events will be needed to re-establish the role of the shul in people’s lives.
Second, rabbis will need to look after the backlog of members who have been suffering: such as the bereaved who never felt they mourned fully, or those who had fallen on hard times, be it loss of job, mental ill-heath or a relationship break-up. In short, we must both change the way synagogues work and re-energise communal life.
Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue and author of ‘Confessions of a Rabbi’ (Biteback Publishing)