Opinion | The journey back to synagogue life

Rabbi Yechiel Shaffer
Rabbi Yechiel Shaffer (Courtesy)

By Rabbi Yechiel Shaffer

Over this past year, industries have had to reimagine themselves, embracing technologies and work structures that existed long before COVID-19 but were rarely adopted until now. While working from home certainly existed before this pandemic, we have had to embrace it where possible, and it has raised tough questions about what work should look like after COVID-19 is defeated. Will the remote work force return to the office? How will teams be built going forward, and will businesses reflect on lessons learned while considering incorporating the most compelling disruptions?

Synagogue communities face many similar questions. While in-person prayer services have resumed for some communities, the robust synagogue life we remember has yet to return. Many sanctuaries remain empty, and the push to shift gatherings into an online space has left many wanting more. This past year has raised for our synagogue leadership some big questions that can bring these important institutions into the next stage of their existence, if we can begin by recognizing the questions that are begging to be asked.

The Torah offers us insight into the work to be done during a time of uncertainty, such as these times we find ourselves in. When the Jewish people cross the miraculously split Red Sea, the Torah tells us that Miriam leads the women in song and dance, with timbrels in hand (Exodus 15:20). The sages wonder where a nation, recently freed from slavery, got instruments for their celebration. Miriam, on the eve of the Exodus, foresaw a time that celebration would be necessary and so, our sages tell us, she prepared instruments. Even though on the eve of the Exodus there was no time to celebrate the miracles God performed, it was with Miriam’s foresight that the Jewish people had the instruments needed to enhance their celebration when the time was right.

While we are in the thick of this experience, facing so many existential questions regarding our safety, we ought to take a few minutes and consider which instruments we want with us when the opportunity to thank God arises. While many synagogues have done an admirable job in creating new venues for connection and soulful expression, we must consider in this moment the future we hope will be true for our sanctified spaces.

What do we hope will be true about the experience of people returning to synagogue? How will we place our congregants at the center of the spiritual services we offer and enable people to reconnect with their communities in light of much that has divided us over this past year?

While so much of synagogue life, both before and during this pandemic, has been compelling, there are many that have not been reached and have been left to feel that synagogue life does not have a place for them. If we view our synagogues as exclusively, or primarily, a space for prayer, we will miss the opportunity to reach the souls of people who are seeking meaningful and uplifting spiritual engagement in other ways.

While many will be asking what the future holds for synagogues, it is not this question that should define our thinking but rather what instruments do we need to carry with us to create a rich harmony of spiritual experiences in our synagogues in the future. While synagogues may experience a slow return to full functioning, we should not use a playbook of predictable offerings but rather should consider the role of a variety of engaging efforts, including prayer, Torah study, chessed and social activities in creating the Batei Knessiyot, the spiritual gathering spaces, of a post-pandemic world.

The Talmud (Berakhot 63a) instructs us to be careful about how we treat our sanctuaries. Just as we do not use our homes for a shortcut, we should not make our sanctuaries into an alleyway. This comparison of the Talmud between the Jewish home and the synagogue is unusual. The synagogue was established to replicate the Temples of Jerusalem, not the Jewish home. Over this past year we have all discovered the critical element home life plays in creating a Jewish experience for each of us. In the future, when we can gather safely, there will be no shortcuts to ensuring we reach all constituents seeking a spiritual space in our sanctuaries.

Rabbi Yechiel Shaffer serves as the rabbi of the Pikesville Jewish Congregation and the Midatlantic regional director for the Orthodox Union.

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