By Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

The COVID 19 pandemic necessitates a second look at the value of large sanctuaries and vast rows of empty pews.

In recent years countless mid-century modern synagogues have been reconfigured for intimacy and closeness and moveable seats. It was debated whether a seating arrangement can provide warmth and welcome when members and attendees are cliquish and standoffish before and after services, even as the movable seats had, more often than not, enabled the usual cliques to squeeze in close to their own.

Now that the sanctuaries are empty, hopefully for a manageable interlude, vast rows of unoccupied pews have become startlingly comforting. Priests and pastors have already draped photographs of congregants on the wooden and upholstered backs of the pews, both for Sunday services and for wedding celebrations. Families sheltered at home and viewing masses in empty cathedrals, or Shabbat services with only a rabbi and cantor on the bimah, are nostalgic for the very image of the pews. Pews have become a prayer for synagogues and churches to become crowded again, a resolve in what could be a prolonged period of social distancing for the foreseeable future.

The old Jewish concept of the minyan, the ten for prayer, has been adapted by the health experts as a maximum rather than as a quorum. In such a climate those old pews are almost an architectural prophetic message, upholding the hope of even a High Holy Day crowd, and preserving a quality of construction and of possible synagogue interaction in which secure, warm wood overcomes moveable tin or plastic.

A generation is already being forged on quarantine, shelter at home, and disease mitigation mode. The health concerns and precautions now being instilled in all generations will become part of the American psyche. Those concerns are not new, but will be normative. My father, who recently passed away at age 96, was always wary of germ incubation during services in the small chapel of my hometown synagogue, as during the requisite handshaking. His concerns are already becoming universal and will definitely affect the comfort levels of first time visitors and longtime attendees in any and all public venues.

Enough time has passed since many synagogues were reconfigured to conduct necessary studies as to the effectiveness of removable of pews, movable chairs and face-to-face arrangements. My own suspicion is that the physical closeness during prayer is not as important to personal relationships as has been declared, and may actually have been intimidating to first time visitors.

In a sensitive and wise reflection, synagogue architects David Brawer and Michael Hauptman noted that lowering the bimah and arranging the seating in a “U” shape “can have unexpected and unintended effects. Prospective members may feel intimidated by the intimacy of contemporary synagogue design, and by the implied expectation that they participate directly in synagogue services. … Measures intended to make the sanctuary more welcoming may therefore have the opposite effect on those who wish to just ‘dip a toe’ before making a long-term commitment.” 

One might add that more introverted people, or individuals interested primarily in observation, reflection or contemplation, may be put off by too close quarters, not to mention those with health concerns going forward.   

For at least five years before COVID 19, erstwhile liberators of Jewish rituals from synagogue buildings were discovering the advantage of a physical structure, even if they had not yet given thought to the cultural and spiritual value of distinguished architecture and beautiful natural materials like wood. Rabbis who once took pride in conducting services at offbeat venues now speak of the advantage of “physical permanence.” Nothing in religious architecture spells permanence more than pews, especially when they’ve been around for decades and are finely-crafted.

With all houses of worship shuttered, live-streaming and Zoom meetings have forced many to reconsider the very nature of religious participation. The most traditional Jews have decided that Zoom meetings cannot replicate a minyan and that the best solution is to pray in solitude in solidarity with thousands of others who are doing the same. Liberal denominations would have clergy performing for the viewers and listeners while the latter choose either to sing back or to sing along or even to occupy themselves with the household, utilizing the liturgy as background music or perhaps background sanctity. How will that change participation once the synagogues are open again? Will the sing-along approach have been challenged somewhat by individualized reception of what was broadcast, by insights and reflections generated in the very process of transmission? Will the U-shaped arrangements now seem contrived – and unsanitary?

If the telecast of services affects prayer, it will certainly affect study, meeting, and relationships. Many congregations may decide that Zoom is more convenient, more handicapped accessible, even more engaging and focusing than the rush to classes and meetings and back home. If this is so, then prayer and other programming will become a veritable pilgrimage to the synagogue, with personal connections already forged via the internet. That could transform the sanctuary from an ice-breaker to a place of hadrat kodesh, the majesty of sanctity. How could that enhance the liturgy? Would pageantry come back, utilizing the talents of members – talents now well known and appreciated because of internet connections – as never utilized before? At the very least one can anticipate a need for congregations to find ways to utilize their unique spaces, especially large and uplifting (and more germ-proof?) spaces, inviting the creativity of all generations. To take three famous examples, I think of how Central Synagogue and Temple Emanu-El and Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City have effectively marshaled their massive sanctuaries with very different prayer styles.

Ironically, in this new era in which we find ourselves, those old pews could provide a metric of social distancing so that larger groups can come together with a sense of trust and confidence. Joggers are warned that germs can come from behind and that it is better to run parallel to others, with proper distance in between, and to be sure that those behind are a certain distance behind.

Synagogues should be seeking out sanctuary blueprints, for with pews one can actually measure out distances, leaving one or two rows in between marking out seats, and creatively indicating blocked seats with various art works. A zigzag-like approach to seating can easily and accurately be mapped out in pews. In any case, the role of the usher or gabai in synagogue worship will take on even more importance, and it has always been important. Large sanctuaries with a couple of hundred people might become the ideal rather than a let down.

Along with the counting of the Omer, from Pesach to Sinai, the metrics of pews, like the biblical calculations for the Mishkan and then the Temple, may become metaphorical for what the Jewish community must do to keep congregants safe and to keep them engaged in how and why to gather together, in deeper relationship with one another, with the Jewish People and with God.

Elliot B. Gertel is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago and has been TV/film critic for the “National Jewish Post and Opinion” since 1979. He is the author of What Jews Know About Salvation, which prompted the Library of Congress to catalogue “salvation” as a Jewish category, and of Over the Top Judaism.