The onset of COVID-19 and the ensuing economic crisis in early 2020 threw the world into a spin. Virtually overnight, travel shut down and people entered isolation and quarantine. Jewish communal life was forced to a grinding halt with many communities rushing to shift as much programming as possible to the digital sphere.
It is difficult to estimate how long the various restrictions will remain in place. It is likely that in the coming months, parts of the Jewish world will gradually begin returning to “normal.” However, this may be a “new normal” that is a hybrid of the pre-Corona era with elements of social distancing and online activity. As of this writing (June 2020), Israel has already begun this shift. Rabbis in the US are planning for the upcoming High Holidays, suggesting alternatives such as totally online prayer with new rituals that can be performed at home, hybrid online/in person prayer, or a modular format with a number of smaller prayer services staggered throughout the day and possibly throughout the week.1
We can assume that the longer restrictions remain in place, the more we can expect the Jewish world to be permanently changed to some extent.
The following is a summary and analysis of the ways in which North American Jewish communities have begun adapting to the COVID-19 crisis and the new emerging reality. Some of the adaptations relate to the pandemic and the need for social distancing, others to the resulting economic crisis – increased unemployment, and diminished philanthropic contributions and other revenues to Jewish organizations.
Many of the successful adaptations described are not so new, but rather connect to existing trends we have been observing on the margins of the mainstream Jewish community. We first described such trends in the 2019 Annual Assessment – “From the Margins to the Mainstream: Millennial American Jews and the Reorientation of the Jewish Middle.2The full report will be published throughout 2020.
The 2019 report, in brief, explains that in recent years, established Jewish institutions have struggled to engage young adults (in their 20s and 30s primarily), while membership statistics and denominational affiliation have declined (among non-Orthodox Jews). This has led many to declare a “shrinking Jewish middle.” However, while young adult Jews might connect less with denominational labels and less frequently hold membership in established organizations, they seem no less interested in engaging in Jewish behavior when defined more broadly. What we are seeing are generational shifts in Jewish behavior and identity rather than declines.
Young adult Jews are increasingly connecting to Judaism through innovative, often independent frameworks and organizations, including independent minyanim, emergent communities (the Jewish Emergent Network (JEN) comprises seven such communities), inventive projects operating from within the mainstream denominations, and thriving programs to engage young adults “where they are.” Taken together, we dub these an ecosystem of Jewish innovation. The reason for the relative success of these initiatives has been their early understanding and adaptation to these generational shifts.
We suggest that the COVID-19 crisis is not introducing these changes but is rather acting as a catalyst for existing shifts.3 By tapping into these adaptations, we seek to offer guidance and insights to Jewish leaders to understand how to better navigate Jewish institutions as US Jewry and the broader American society undergo this generational shift.
COVID-19 as Catalyst
It is not clear which Jewish organizations will survive the current tumult, and what changes they will have to make in order to do so. It would seem, however, that the longer the pandemic and economic twin crises continue, with limited physical and personal interaction, the more entrenched these changes could become. We can expect some activities to remain online permanently – those that have been deemed successful (perhaps lectures and other learning activity). But will prayer and spiritual activity return to the way they were or will all synagogues (post-Halachic) begin live-streaming services? Will there be irreversible Halachic changes regarding virtual minyans or the use of Zoom on Shabbat or holidays for the more liberal movements – Reform, Conservative and some of the more liberal Sephardic and Modern Orthodox groups?
The shift to online Judaism, even if temporary or partial, has, in many ways, “flattened” the Jewish world, according to Forward editor Jodi Rudoren, or “reshuffled” its borders.4 A Jew in Jerusalem, London, New York or Los Angeles can just as easily participate in a learning activity, lecture, prayer service or discussion with Jews around the world as they do with those in their own community. For the curious, this opens many doors and could further erode many of the denominational divides that have been blurring over the past few decades. Could we end up with one large non-Orthodox denomination? After all, even before the “technical” merger between the Reform and Conservative movements, we have seen a gradual shift whereby the Reform Movement has grown increasingly traditional and the Conservative less so. As synagogues in shrinking communities merge, and as umbrella organizations are now joining forces, might the COVID-19 crisis speed up this trend?
On the other hand, the availability of almost unlimited online Jewish content could speed up another trend – the one of hyper-individualization, of the Jewish experience expressed through a picking and choosing of various identity, ritual and educational components among young adult Jews. That is, the trend whereby Jewish communities decreasingly need to cater to a broad range of age groups, political opinions, and religious approaches within a single geographic area in order to maintain that community but where young Jews feel entirely comfortable creating or partaking in niche Jewish experiences that cater more specifically and “authentically” to their ideal.5
A ”Rethink” Approach
One of the major themes of this innovation ecosystem is the willingness to “rethink” or “reimagine” everything. That is, to broadly assess what has become outdated, and update or entirely remake it to better fit modern sensibilities. This spirit of innovation and openness has practical aspects but also conceptual elements. For these new initiatives, it is only natural to rethink things such as location or the lack thereof, building layouts, staff structures, and membership and participation models. More than that, new initiatives can look into deeper matters such as affiliation, ideology, relationship to Halacha and tradition, prayer texts, as well as politics, positions on Israel, relations with the non-Jewish world and more. Even if the results are not so markedly different from existing institutions, the very process of questioning and choosing has an important aspect of deliberateness and intentionality, which many young Jews seek today.
Such organizations are at times more capable of pushing the envelope on often sensitive matters. They differ from legacy institutions that cater to an existing community with its traditions and norms, multiple generations and views, as well as denominational institutions that are expected to remain within certain boundaries, theological norms, or couplings of religious and political views. The new organizations often form around an individual or small group with a distinct approach and vision; those who appreciate that vision are welcome to participate. They make no claim to represent the broader community while coexisting within a larger community.
The most obvious adaptation of the current crisis is the near full shift to digital platforms in all spheres of Jewish life, including those previously unimaginable. While online lectures and conferences are not new, they shifted from becoming an alternative to the sole means of convening.
Online learning was booming years prior to the current health crisis. Alongside a boom in Jewish learning in general, much of it was especially geared to engage audiences not versed in traditional, high-level Jewish learning. Orthodox groups like Chabad pioneered Jewish learning and Q&A platforms early on. The growth and popularity of podcasts has drawn new audiences to Jewish learning and subjects. Online projects like Sefaria have made the entire Torah (literally), Talmud, and major commentators available online in English (with simultaneous Hebrew), in a user friendly and searchable format. Project 929 has made daily Torah learning available to the masses, and Daf Yomi (daily Talmud study) thrives on digital platforms. Hadar launched a successful online “chavruta” study platform, Project Zug, where partners are matched together to study Jewish texts digitally as part of a larger curriculum. The Hartman Institute in North America launched its I-Engage program, in which its scholars teach communities virtually.
There is little available data comparing online engagement during the pandemic with online or in-person interaction prior to the crisis. Hadar’s online platform, for example, saw 2.3 million downloads in 2019-2020, with engagement “skyrocketing” since mid-March 2020: engagement with their Facebook page rose 367 percent from the previous month. Livestream views saw a 500 percent increase. Hadar also reported that website traffic grew in this period, with Torah downloads going up 102 percent in the same time period, prayer file downloads increasing by 58 percent and pageviews by 23 percent.6
Jewish LIVE, an entirely online “Jewish community center,” sprang up almost overnight during the pandemic (launched by the creators of the popular Judaism Unbound podcast) and offers 25 hours a week of live Jewish content with thousands of subscribers in the United States, Israel, and around the world. In May, for example, its Facebook channel garnered more than 41,000 unique views, and another 13,000 viewers via Zoom and Vimeo, across all age groups.7
Shalom, an organization that engages primarily with young adults through Jewish cultural and educational programming in Sydney, Australia, noted a 113 percent increase in participation over the second quarter of 2020 compared to the previous year (comparing live event attendance to online participation during the pandemic, there were 2053 in person attendees in 2019 and 4373 online participants in 2020). Of note is a considerable uptick in participation of young parents from their homes.8
Prayer and ritual have also moved online, leading to an entire debate in its own right.9 If the Reform and more liberal independent emergent communities had already adopted online prayer services to an extent prior to the crisis, the Conservative and Orthodox had to confront halachic limitations. Here we have witnessed divisions within the halachic world, with Conservative, some Sephardic, and a few Modern Orthodox rabbis allowing for prayers requiring a minyan (quorum of 10) to be said virtually, provided that certain criteria are met (but not on Shabbat). In Israel, a handful of Sephardic rabbis (connected to the Chief Rabbinate) allowed (with much controversy) for those who would experience sorrow if they were alone on Passover to attend “Zoom Seders” with their loved ones as long as the computer was activated prior to the start of the holiday.10 The use of digital platforms to facilitate a minyan, and prayers that may only be said with a minyan, has become a point of debate within the Orthodox world, in the US and Israel.11
It is still too soon to determine whether the increase in online prayer participation, given that in-person group prayer is largely unavailable, will continue after the pandemic. Such an increase, if it remains consistent, could have a significant effect. One Reform synagogue in the US, for example, reported that roughly twice as many people have been attending virtual Friday night services than had in person prior to the pandemic.12
The use of technology for religious purposes during the pandemic brought to the fore discussions that were already well underway.13 Several Reform synagogues and some of the emergent communities have live streamed services for years, especially during the High Holidays. If thousands attend in person, another few hundred might tune in from their homes. Lab/Shul hosts a “weekly Kaddish call” in which people from all over phone in to say the Kaddish prayer with a virtual minyan. However, Orthodox and Conservative Judaism have refrained from doing so due to halachic considerations: electricity cannot be operated during Shabbat or Jewish holidays, and a minyan cannot convene virtually. In the course of our research, only three entirely online communities were found that conduct their entire communal life digitally. It seems, for the time being, while much has moved online, especially learning, people overwhelmingly feel the need to gather personally for prayer and socializing.
Some communities have taken advantage of technology to more easily design and publish their own prayer books (like The Kitchen in San Francisco), once the undertaking of denominational organizations or available only to wealthy congregations. Others have forgone printed prayer books altogether and employ video monitors with constantly updating prayers, mediations and visual displays (Lab/Shul in New York).
For some communities, technology has affected how they think about membership and payment. Sixth and I in Washington DC conducts its programming and payment via its website and has no membership per se. Such a model works for the community that engages exclusively with young adults.
Space and Organization
Communities are also rethinking organizational concepts and the use of space. This has practical but also conceptual considerations. Real estate is expensive and membership fees are often high in order to support large buildings with staffs. Many synagogues and communal institutions are relics of an era when membership was the norm, and styles were opulent and passive. Synagogues were filled a few days a year and remained empty most other days. Financial difficulties and shifting membership and demographic trends have led some communities to fold, others to merge. Some of the Emergent congregations studied, and virtually all of the Independent Minyanim do not have permanent spaces, rather share or rent space from more established communities, of from churches and secular spaces on ad hoc bases – bars, cafes, parks, etc.
Some do this out of budgetary considerations. However, a number noted that there is more. Rabbi Noa Kushner at The Kitchen14 (San Francisco) said were it too have access to such a budget, it would prefer to invest in hiring and placing outreach rabbis in the various neighborhoods of San Francisco where young, unaffiliated Jews live. Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum15 of Kavana Cooperative in Seattle noted that the centers of gravity of Seattle Jews change from decade to decade, so the lack of a permanent building allows for nimbleness.
Rabbi William Hamilton16 of Kehillath Israel outside of Boston (MA), an established Conservative synagogue, invited minyanim and another synagogue community to partner with it in sharing its campus and infrastructure. The communities maintain independence where it suits them but cooperate and share resources when it benefits all sides. Thus, the campus can hold as many as five different styles of prayer service on a given Shabbat, each engaging the community in different ways.
Certainly, in a time where resources are tight, and more broadly when concepts of participation and attendance are being reimagined, communities will have to consider such issues, with these and other communities providing innovative models.
Funding and Philanthropy
The funding of Jewish life has especially been challenged during these times.17 As “membership” becomes less a mainstay, and the “pay per play” model popularized by Chabad becomes more prevalent, communities and organizations must rethink how to fund Jewish life. Technology has allowed for crowdfunding platforms to emerge, but these have not yet replaced the declines in traditional funding methods.
Jewish day schools are being hit first and hardest, with parents questioning if they should pay tens of thousands of tuition dollars for what can only be a partial online learning experience.18 Can synagogue and JCC members be expected to continue paying membership fees, especially if they are out of work? Funders are reported to have decreased contributions with philanthropies having to “triage” their giving. The Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) in the US announced it had laid off 20 percent of its workforce, after having to cancel URJ summer camps (a major source of revenue for the movement).19 It later announced it was “merging” with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), combining administrative and operational capacity in order to increase efficiency and remain afloat.20
The Future of Denominations
The rise of these successful and independent institutions has called into question the future of the non-Orthodox denominations (Orthodoxy remains steadfast). The Conservative movement has especially seen a decline in affiliation and membership while, as noted, it recently announced a technical merger with the URJ to cut operational costs.21
There is little doubt that the foreseeable future will be replete with challenges. And yet, if we are to find a silver lining in all of this, it is that the current crisis offers Jewish institutions a transformative opportunity to reinvent themselves, something that might have proved more difficult in calmer times. As Rahm Emanuel is known for saying: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Jewish institutions must, as we recommend in the full forthcoming report, reexamine what they believe their core functions to be, or what they should be, and seek the most effective ways to deliver them to their constituents in light of this new reality. Most certainly, this will include bringing forth and quickly developing young leadership, digital natives, to take their place at the table alongside existing leaders. Jewish leaders can not only seek to “wait out the storm” or hit “copy-paste” on what they had been doing and trying to transfer it into the digital realm. They must take advantage of the current moment or risk becoming obsolete. And many are indeed successfully taking this challenge head on with unprecedented creativity and energy.
One unique opportunity is fast emerging from this new reality. That is, strengthening personal, Jewish life in the home, for non-Orthodox American Jewry. As scholar Jack Wertheimer describes in “The New American Judaism,” many American Jews, especially Reform and the less observant Conservative Jews, are nearly entirely dependent on the synagogue and clergy for Jewish ritual life. Few outside of Orthodox congregations (and Independent Minyanim) regularly perform Jewish rituals at home, or study Jewish texts, or even know how to approach traditional Jewish texts, without the facilitation of Jewish professionals and lay-leaders.
The growth of online learning platforms and engagement modalities could not have come at a better time. Rabbis, educators, and community leaders should consider a new engagement model for congregants and the wider community with the aim of building a more solid foundation for Jews to practice home-based Judaism. For the foreseeable future this will be largely in lieu of physical synagogue attendance and communal experience . However, down the road, this could help communities to have richer Jewish personal lives alongside the communal experience. This might take the form of preparing congregation members for Shabbat, holidays and festivals with take-home kits and preparing tutorial videos and hosting online learning sessions intended to make congregants more Jewishly literate. More congregants could be taught to pray independently, and others could become lay leaders who prepare families to hold prayer services together in the home or in small group prayer gatherings in outdoor spaces. Old rituals can be re-taught and re-introduced, while new rituals can be created and practiced outside the synagogue walls. The longer these restrictions continue, the greater the opportunities for invigorating synagogue and communal life.
The coronavirus crisis is showing us which communities and institutions were better prepared for these challenges. Time will tell if others can get on board quickly. Rabbis and community leaders should take advantage of this tumultuous period to help carry their communities into the future, and federations and other umbrella organizations can help play a key role in facilitating such efforts. They can do this by thinking how to translate their core functions into the emerging new reality, and how best to take advantage of the strange reality we find ourselves in to help transition their communities.
- Dolsten, Josefin. “Synagogues are already planning for a socially distanced High Holidays.” Times of Israel. April 24, 2020
- Feferman, Dan. “From the Margins to the Mainstream: Millennial American Jews and the Reorientation of the Jewish Middle”. The Jewish People Policy Institute. 2019 Annual Assessment of the Jewish People. http://jppi.org.il/new/en/article/aa2019/reports/millennials/#.XtOtl2gzY2w
- Although we came to this conclusion originally, it is reflected, organized and explained well by Rabbi David Wolpe: The Tikvah Fund Podcast: David Wolpe on the Pandemic and the Future of Liberal Judaism. May 27, 2020
- Rudoren, Jodi. “The (Jewish) world is flat (tening),”The Forward, May 24, 2020
- The various Forward essays are a part of a series on how the coronavirus crisis will affect the Jewish world. They can be found collectively here https://forward.com/tag/after-corona/
- Hadar’s online engagement data provided to JPPI by Elie Kaunfer, CEO of Hadar.
- Jewish Live engagement data provided to JPPI by Dan Libenson and Todd Brecher, of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, which runs Jewish Live.
- Data from Shalom Sydney is provided by Rabbi Alon Meltzer, program director at Shalom to the author. The authors are aware that Australia is not in North America, however the Australian Jewish community exhibits many similar characteristics to the North American community and faces many of similar challenges.
- Lau-Lavie, Amichai, “Judaism is evolving. Sacred life on screen is here to stay,” The Forward, May 24, 2020
- Saiman, Chaim. “The Zoom-Seder ruling reveals new fractures and coalitions in the world of Jewish Orthodoxy,” Mosaic, May 28, 2020
- Kalman, David Zvi. “Shul in the Time of Coronavirus,” Tablet Magazine, March 11, 2020
- Temple Beth El, a Reform Synagogue in Northbrook Illinois, near Chicago, told the author.
- Moment, “What role should virtual presence play in Jewish ritual and community?” Ask the Rabbis, Moment Magazine, November 5, 2018
- From an interview of Kushner with the author, JPPI Fellow Dan Feferman.
- From an interview of Nussbaum with the author, JPPI Fellow Dan Feferman.
- From an interview of Hamilton with the author, JPPI Fellow Dan Feferman.
- Spokoiny, Andres, “How the pandemic will change Jewish philanthropy,” The Forward, May 24, 2020.
- Mandel, Bethany, “The end of Jewish day school,” The Forward, May 24, 2020
- Feldman, Ari. “Reform movement cuts staff by 20%, citing existential threat,” The Forward, May 13, 2020
- Feldman, Ari, “Reform leader: merging national organization with others ‘a very real possibility’,” The Forward, May 15, 2020