Will the pandemic and other challenges change the way we worship communally?
Local synagogue buildings are mainly empty, due to COVID-19, but their congregations are far from dormant. When the Michigan Board of Rabbis decided on March 12, 2020 to close synagogue buildings due to the risk of infection from the coronavirus, they acted in advance of Michigan’s March 23 stay-at-home order that prohibited public gatherings. While houses of worship were exempt from state penalties, local synagogues wanted to be cautious.
“We saved scores, maybe hundreds, of lives in this community because we closed down,” said Rabbi Paul Yedwab of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield.
While their buildings were shuttered, many synagogues made a quick transition to online Shabbat services, seders, classes and other programs. These Zoom and other online offerings have attracted thousands of Jewish congregants. While Orthodox shuls do not use Zoom on Shabbat or holidays, some Orthodox synagogues, such as the Sara and Morris Tugman Chabad Torah Center of West Bloomfield, offer pre-Shabbat and other religious education programs online.
“Synagogues were not just putting things online. They made calls and sent emails and cards to members. It wasn’t easy. It has taken a huge effort on the part of rabbis, cantors and teachers,” said Dr. Ron Wolfson, Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He is co-founder of Synagogue 3000, a nonprofit that trains Jewish leaders, and author of a handbook for Jewish congregations. (See sidebar.)
While some congregations have live-streamed Shabbat services for several years, many had no online experience. Converting all programming to online platforms brought new challenges and opportunities.
“The impossibility of singing together in real time is a downer for all of us, but we’ve found some creative solutions to allow other modes of interactivity — like having input from congregants via the chat, using breakout rooms for discussion and schmoozing and more,” said Jake Ehrlich, community engagement associate at Congregation T’chiyah, a Reconstructionist synagogue based in Oak Park.
Several congregations, such as Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, report higher levels of participation through Zoom than for in-person services. Rabbi Yedwab describes Temple Israel members’ online engagement as “very robust,” including 20,000 individuals participating in an online seder.
Synagogue observers cite several possible reasons for this — the convenience of online participation, the increased availability of time due to Michigan’s stay-at-home order and the search for comfort during a difficult time.
“The pandemic emphasizes the need to be part of a community,” said Rabbi Aaron Bergman of Congregation Adat Shalom, who chaired the Michigan Board of Rabbis during the early months of the pandemic.
However, online programming doesn’t fulfill all needs. “Zooms don’t accomplish the same thing as a beit knesset — a gathering place,” said Rabbi Schneur Silberberg, community outreach director of the Chabad Torah Center.
Dana Patchak, a West Bloomfield resident who is a longtime member and former board member of a local Reform temple, describes Zoom services as “so one-dimensional and flat. It makes me sad for the rabbi. The whole feeling of community is sitting in a sanctuary together. It’s a very scary time for people and they need to be together.”
High Holidays Loom
For months, local congregations have discussed how and when to reopen their facilities. “We consider the governor’s orders and changing science. We’ve gone very cautious,” said Rabbi Bergman.
Local churches have also struggled with reopening. Churches in some parts of the country have reopened with few requirements for social distancing and other health precautions, leading to COVID outbreaks.
The Michigan Board of Rabbis issued a “Proposal for Re-opening Simchahs” on June 9. This permits small gatherings beginning in August for private, in-person weddings, baby naming ceremonies and b’nei mitzvah at synagogues, but preferably outdoors, with very strict attendance limits and health rules.
The Council of Orthodox Rabbis of Greater Detroit has issued stringent guidelines for re-opening synagogues, but allows considerable discretion on the part of individual rabbis and congregations, depending on the demographics of their membership and the nature of their facilities. Some Orthodox synagogues have been holding small minyanim and services in their buildings with pre-registration and other requirements.
Young Israel of Southfield has had two hybrid services daily and on Shabbat since mid-June. The hazzan stands in the doorway between the social hall and the adjacent patio, which enables worshipers to choose whether to pray indoors or outside, explains Rabbi Yechiel Morris. “Not everyone is coming back but it’s working pretty well,” he said.
A number of other congregations, including Beth Shalom, Shaarey Zedek and Shir Tikvah, have been holding socially distanced outdoor services. Families are seated together at a designated distance from others.
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The Chabad Torah Center of West Bloomfield has been holding services using two tents and a sukkah adjacent to their building. Rabbi Silberberg says that there is plenty of space in their parking lot and some individuals choose to sit farther away. However, he says that a “significant percentage has chosen not to return.”
At all congregational events, the traditional practices of passing around of the Torah and handing out or sharing prayer books are suspended. Social distancing and masks are required.
The High Holidays pose an immense challenge — a reluctance to give up traditional services that are so important to the community but a recognition that the coronavirus continues to be a serious threat, especially for full-scale, indoor gatherings.
The Michigan Board of Rabbis approved a policy on July 20 stating that High Holiday services will be online only. According to their statement, this decision is based on a commitment to the Jewish values of pikuah nefesh, “safeguarding life,” and sakanat nefeshot, the prohibition of “endangering life,” as well as a “preponderance of the best scientific and medical advice that we have.”
At Young Israel of Southfield, a survey has been sent to members to assess their preferences for the High Holidays.
“There is no question that the High Holidays will feel different this year. But whether ‘different’ is good or bad will depend largely, like always, on the intentionality and soulfulness by which one approaches the experience rather than whether the experience is online or in-person,” comments Rabbi Aaron Starr of Congregation Shaarey Zedek. The Conservative Rabbinical Assembly has developed detailed guidelines and legal forms with representatives of other Jewish streams; these are available at
Will Membership Decline?
COVID-19 is also affecting synagogue finances. Revenue from scheduled synagogue events, now canceled, has been lost. In addition, fundraising events have been canceled, although some congregations, such as Young Israel of Oak Park (YIOP) and Young Israel of Southfield, will hold virtual versions of their annual dinners. YIOP’s fundraiser will include a kosher meal, home-delivered, and a virtual comedy show.
Membership revenues also may be affected as some individuals question whether dues make sense when on-site services and programs have been curtailed or eliminated. At Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township, Rabbi Mark Miller said that only a few individuals have raised that issue so far. The temple is a service organization and personnel costs are the biggest part of its budget, he explained, and most people understand that.
However, Rabbi Yedwab said that “all congregations are expecting some drop-off because of the economic recession.”
While the pandemic has created major new challenges for synagogues, membership trends had been flat or declining for some years. (See about the Detroit Population Study.)
There has been a continuing decline in religious identification among American Protestants, Catholics and Jews, as reported by the Pew Research Center, which regularly conducts surveys about religious attitudes. This disaffiliation is strongest among younger people.
There have been new efforts locally and nationally to reach the Jewish community, especially younger people who don’t find synagogue membership particularly appealing, as well as initiatives to engage and retain existing synagogue members.
Several years ago, Temple Israel began The Well, an outreach effort for younger Jewish individuals and families that focuses on Shabbat and holiday celebrations, education and social programs, all held in various locations outside the temple. The goal is to develop connections and strengthen Jewish identity and knowledge, which may eventually lead to affiliation with a synagogue. A new director, Rabbi Jeff Stombaugh, joined The Well this summer.
In recent years, unrelated to COVID, some Reform and Conservative congregations across the country have been attempting to retain members through small special interest groups. This concept isn’t completely new — there was a chavurah movement years ago and most synagogues have brotherhood and sisterhood groups. However, the current initiative is somewhat different. “People have always had naturally occurring small groups but relationships were secondary,” explains Rabbi Nicole Auerbach, who is in charge of congregational engagement and small groups at the Central Synagogue in New York.
“A synagogue is not a building or a set of programs. We want to make sure that everyone feels seen and recognized and has a sense of connection,” she said.
The congregation has a group for dads with young children, a Jewish cookbook group, a group interested in photography and another focused on social justice.
“What is powerful is that people build really deep relationships — people who are there for them,” Rabbi Auerbach said, adding that the goal is for congregants to be co-owners and co-creators of their community and to feel their Judaism without a rabbi in the room.
While groups may be activity-based, discussion groups have “explicitly Jewish content,” she said. Group leaders receive training and may later use those skills for other synagogue roles.
Locally, prior to the pandemic, Congregation T’chiyah was developing a different small group model — based on groups of individuals who live close to one another with designated point people for check-in and to facilitate connections. These groups are providing lay-led social support and mutual aid, as well as connection, to counteract isolation during this pandemic, Ehrlich explains.
A New Appreciation
While synagogues are closed now, rabbis are encouraged by their congregants’ continued involvement. They believe that synagogues will survive, although perhaps with significant changes.
“People are now realizing how important synagogues are in their lives. All have been engaging their congregations with new modalities for prayer, education and connection,” said Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
“I think that a significant impact that this crisis will have on synagogue life will be one of decentralization: synagogues will need to see themselves as facilitators of home-, community- and online-based Judaism, rather than a physical ‘one-stop shop’ for Jewish life,” Ehrlich said.
“Synagogues will be needed more than ever. We want community. We want support. We want validation,” said Rabbi Bergman. “There is a craving for connection and community. There will be surface changes through technology.”
He anticipates continued use of Zoom and online programming, social distancing and some form of hybrid services “at least for the next few years, due to the health and age of so many people, until there is a vaccine that works.”
What can synagogues do to grow their members? Do Jews need shul to stay connected? Let us know at email@example.com.