There are lessons to be learned from this year of devastation

We should build on some of the innovations and changes to communal life that the pandemic has forced us to adopt, writes the Chief Rabbi


Religious Jewish men wearing the talit, a traditional Jewish prayer shawl, and on their foreheads the tefillin (or phylacteries), a small black leather box containing scrolls of parchment with verses from the Torah, pray keeping distance from each other outside their closed synagogue in Netanya on April 23, 2020 as Israel imposed measures to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

March 25, 2021 11:15

In my inaugural address as Chief Rabbi in 2013, I made the following observation: “Every generation faces its own challenges and every generation must provide its response. With our minds turned to the past and our eyes fixed firmly on the future … we must find the necessary tools to transform our challenges into opportunities, as we hold on ever so tightly to our spiritual legacy, which passes through our hands, en-route to the generations to come.”

I never imagined then that the defining challenge of our time would hit us with such sudden, devastating potency or that it would catch the world by such surprise. In addition to the climate crisis, the refugee crisis and ever-deepening global, political and social polarisation, we must now prepare to contend with the aftermath of a pandemic, which has created extreme economic disadvantage, significant mental health challenges and yet further political and social upheaval.

Since March 2020, I have instinctively turned my thoughts to how the impact of the pandemic will change our Jewish community experience.

Covid-19 has created a fundamental rupture in the fabric of our communal life, disrupting our established infrastructure and institutions. Every type of Jewish organisation has been forced to reimagine their modus operandi.

At one and the same time, both our inextricable connectedness and our vulnerability have been highlighted. Many of the primary aspects of our religious practice and engagement, which have anchored us for generations, have been impeded, altered beyond recognition and, in some cases, cancelled altogether.

The pandemic has brought about a tectonic and generational shift in the way that members of the Jewish community engage with Jewish life. For many, habits have been broken and we will now have the daunting task of re-establishing them. As we slowly transition into a more regular rhythm of activity, a paradigm-shift in Jewish communal life is called for.

At the turn of the 20th Century, most of our “houses of worship” were little more than that — places for formal, congregational prayer. More recently, we have developed them into powerhouses of Jewish religious, educational, social and cultural excellence. Indeed, my office has made that development a key focus of my Chief Rabbinate, providing essential guidance and financial support to help communities realise their potential. However, I believe that this is a moment in history for us to consider how our communities should evolve once more, in order to most effectively hand our precious Jewish legacy over to the next generation.

Over the past few months, I have been encouraging communities to consider the way forward, mindful of halacha and recognising that no one response will be appropriate for all communities. Similarly, in meetings with the lay and professional leadership of our outstanding communal organisations, I have been hearing about the real challenges they face and the different ways they plan to respond. In our quest to reconceptualise our vision of community and the nature of Jewish engagement, as well as to strengthen our communal infrastructure, we ignore our pandemic experiences at our peril. Some concrete lessons we have learned are immediately apparent, and most importantly, a number of principles guiding the way forward can now be discerned.

In the realm of synagogue worship alone, the number of lessons that have been learned over the last year has been considerable. We have learnt that there is something precious about life-cycle events with greater online accessibility, smaller physical gatherings and less ostentatious celebrations. We have learnt that complete Shabbat and Yomtov services need not be as long as some were used to.

Ironically, many have felt more connected to their community than ever before. This, I believe, is primarily for two reasons. Firstly, Rabbis, Rebbetzens and community leaders have excelled, reaching out pastorally with affection and concern. Secondly, whereas previously one needed to cross a threshold in order to attend a community event, now one just needs to press a few buttons.

We must continue to take full advantage of the “Zoom revolution”. We recognise that, often, one’s physical presence significantly enhances the inspiration one receives, so some events should be exclusively in-person. Others should be exclusively online, while many should surely now be hybrid events, so that a global audience can benefit from a real-life occasion.

Having seen the appetite for smaller, more personal home-based prayer experiences, in addition to prayer services in synagogue, we should accommodate and encourage services in homes and gardens.

In addition to making community life more appealing and engaging, I believe that there are also some more fundamental truths of which we must not lose sight.

First, the pandemic has highlighted for us the centrality of our homes in securing our Jewish future. At the most impressionable time of our children’s lives, a love for Yiddishkeit is “caught” and not “taught” and no amount of time spent at school, shul or youth centre can replace meaningful Jewish experiences at home. In partnership with our wonderful schools and shul communities, we must encourage and inspire families to think of the home as the centre stage on which Jewish life plays out, to ensure that our homes will be the most significant guarantor of Jewish continuity.

In addition, the past year has highlighted for us that, as important as shuls are, the essence of community is not a building; it is people. And all people count, whoever they might be. All have a place within our communities and all must feel at home in our midst.

Recognising that not every Jewish journey has to begin and end in a particular building, it is time to do even more to reach people wherever they are — at home, at school, on campuses, at workplaces and even in local parks — in settings where people feel more comfortable and are therefore more inclined to lean into valuable Jewish experiences. Many wonderful communal organisations that we are blessed to have, already do great work in all these areas, but we must set our sights even higher, and, wherever possible, we should be more joined up to achieve maximum impact. Most importantly, we must take advantage of this historic opportunity to refocus our attention on a key, central element of Jewish life — the power of spirituality. Many have been drawn to shul by a delicious kiddush, an entertaining speaker or milestone event.

These will always have a role to play in communal life, but their impact can never compare to that of a truly uplifting spiritual experience.

We are blessed to have a siddur full of prayers that can transform our lives in a most profound way. Drawing on the recitation of these prayers, we must spare no effort in providing inspirational participatory services that strengthen our bond with our Creator and with our Judaism, so that they can serve as an extraordinary source of meaning and joy. Give a person a great kiddush and perhaps they will attend shul once, but give them a powerful Kabbalat Shabbat experience and they will be engaged for the rest of their lives.

Finally, we must never forget the power of a community that cares, one which supports us and provides an essential safety net that will catch us if we fall. This pandemic has prompted an unprecedented outpouring of lovingkindness, fundraising and volunteering. More regular pastoral calls and care packages for the vulnerable have become essential aspects of communal activity. Over the coming years, that safety net will continue to be tested as never before. Our community has already shown that it can rise to this generational challenge and I have been immensely proud of those efforts, but there is so much more work yet to do to ensure that no one feels left behind.

This is a historic moment. The call of the hour is for a careful examination of every sphere of Jewish communal life so that we can adapt to the changing landscape. Every one of us can help answer that call by giving of ourselves to the community in some way. It is no exaggeration to say that our collective future depends on it.

March 25, 2021 11:15

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