COVID Judaism is now competitive religion

(RNS) — There are few people in the Jewish world that I respect more than Ron Wolfson. He is that rare creature in Jewish circles — a true visionary; a thought leader whose insights have helped transform the way that synagogues operate and/or should operate. Few people have done more to help American Jews reimagine what Jewish institutional life could look like, and to create those programs that would make those changes real and enduring.

That is why I encourage you to read Wolfson’s recent article in the Forward.

Because, whether he knew it or not, Ron just figured out the biggest problem that synagogues are now facing.

Wolfson lauds the worship offerings of synagogues during the pandemic. Many of them were, to use his term, “extra-ordinary.” Deftly produced, visually exciting, aesthetically powerful — to a fault.

What is the problem?

Almost every synagogue in that article is affluent and/or urban and/or urbane and/or large and/or richly staffed.

Those large-ish, urban and urbane congregations can afford the spectacular production values. Every rabbi can tell you about their own members who chose not to “attend” their services, because they were too busy “shul surfing” to see what the huge synagogues were doing.

I not only respect Wolfson; I also respect the rabbis in those larger synagogues. Many of them are my friends and teachers. Their vision is appropriately large.

But, what about the rabbis who are running one- or two-person operations?

Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that many synagogues are now encountering more than the usual financial stresses. Add to those stresses the costs of running what has basically become a television studio.

If Jews are looking for the big productions out in the cyber world — and if they can find those productions without even leaving their couches — how can those smaller shuls possibly “compete”?

Are we now experiencing synagogue social Darwinism, where only the strongest will survive?

Worship in the age of COVID could increasingly fall under the sway of the rampant consumerism of American life. Years ago, Reginald Bibby, a Canadian sociologist, wrote: “(Religion) has become a neatly packaged consumer item — taking its place among other commodities that can be bought or bypassed according to one’s consumption whims …”

The danger of online worship is that the individual worshipper abandons his or her own community and becomes a browser via the browser for spiritual audiovisual experiences — the way I often surf through Netflix.

Synagogue life cannot simply be about “market share” or “hits.” That is a form of idolatry.

It needs to be about a sacred community that commits itself to increasing “social capital” among its members.

What does it mean to increase “social capital” during these dark times of a pandemic?

We don’t know — yet.

Two things seem certain.

First, we cannot abandon kavannah, sacred focusing and intention, as a goal of worship. That, and not the shiny aspects of production, should be our goal.

Second, in the time of COVID, above all, effort counts. Congregants appreciate the efforts that their clergy made so that the Days of Awe could be meaningful. Moreover, they were remarkably forgiving of the predictably unpredictable technical glitches. They knew that we had thrown ourselves into the arms of the capricious gods of Zoom and Wi-Fi.

There is such a thing as “good enough,” and the overwhelming majority of American Jews accepted it.

That says a lot about who we Jews really are.

But, as for synagogue Judaism: To quote the Buffalo Springfield: “There’s something happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear.”

Or, it might be becoming increasingly clear. Synagogue life will not go back to the way it once was.

The future belongs to those synagogues that can make the changes stick.

And (gulp) have the wherewithal to do so.


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