A Shabbat service at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, available for those in person and on Zoom.
A Shabbat service at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, available for those in person and on Zoom. (Screenshot)

As COVID-19 transforms from an acute crisis to a chronic condition, Jewish leaders are wrestling with which institutional changes brought about in the past year deserve to continue.

In countless conversations, the same words arise to describe this past year: loss, loneliness, fear, as well as opportunity, gratitude and “silver linings.” Mourners grieved alone. Parents suffered exhaustion. Children regressed. Teens and adults battled depression and anxiety. Divorces multiplied. 

Rabbi Aaron Starr
Rabbi Aaron Star

Yet also, among the Jewish community in particular, adult education flourished; the numbers of people participating in prayer services grew; and innovation took hold. Synagogues adapted. People reported renewed focus on their most important priorities, including family, community and compassion for those in need. 

As COVID-19 transforms from an acute crisis to a chronic condition, Jewish leaders are wrestling with which institutional changes brought about in the past year deserve to continue. What remains clear, however, is that Judaism holds the potential to address the greatest ills facing humanity and, in a post-pandemic world, participating actively in synagogue life offers the most direct path to a life of meaning, purpose and joy.

The Role of Technology

Following the shutdown of synagogue buildings, the tools that create digital gatherings revolutionized notions of community. Zoom and similar programs created opportunities in which Michigan synagogues might grant aliyot to members wintering in Florida; for families in mourning around the world to join virtually with their loved ones in reciting Kaddish together; and for those with illness or disability to engage more fully in communal life.

Synagogue members reported connecting more deeply with prayer services by seeing their clergy up close and by eliminating the distraction of other worshippers around them. 

In a post-pandemic world, synagogues and temples will continue to utilize online tools as a complement to in-person adult education opportunities, religious school and committee meetings. However, for prayer in particular, synagogues and temples will need to decide the extent to which they utilize technology. After all, a fine line exists between technology serving as an aid to building community and enhancing faith, and on the other side, technology serving as a distraction or impediment to religious life.

We Need to be Together

Indeed, suffering through the pandemic for more than a year emphasized for us that technology cannot replace real-life human companionship; in-person community is as vital to sustaining life as food, water and shelter. Moreover, the pandemic exacerbated humanity’s greatest challenges, such as confronting loss and powerlessness; recognizing suffering and inequality; searching for balance between individual freedoms and moral obligations toward others; and battling existential loneliness. Judaism, in general, and synagogue life, in particular, are uniquely capable of addressing the human condition and providing moral guidance in a complex world.

Suffering through the pandemic made clear that despite the advantages of modern technology, we still need to journey together, sharing in each other’s lives. We need to hug, to kibitz, to dance, to grow, to heal, to learn, to sing and to help others … together in person. 

At Congregation Shaarey Zedek, we opened our sanctuary on Shabbat mornings, with mask and distancing requirements in place, and we innovated a wonderful Shabbat morning, outdoor “Pray-ground” service for children and families. Lifecycle events continue in person. The renewed human connection has been, in a word, redemptive. 

At the same time, we continue to offer on Zoom all services, fully participatory, seven-days-a-week. Come fall, our religious school will meet in-person on Sundays and online Tuesday afternoons. In this last year, our lives became a hybrid of online and in-person interaction, so it makes sense that our synagogue experiences are, too. 

Confronting the pandemic reminds us, too, that quality of life is as important as quantity of life, and that what synagogues offer — family and friendship, sages and storytellers, rituals and routines, music and memories — imbues our days with significance. 

As COVID-19 transforms from an acute crisis to a chronic condition, Jewish leaders will differ over which institutional changes brought about in the past year deserve to continue. 

What we all agree upon, however, is that, especially in a post-pandemic world, active participation in synagogue life is an essential element in living a life of meaning, purpose and joy.

Rabbi Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.