By Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Sam Kaminsky, Rabbinic Intern Anna Calamaro, Hilla Israeli, and Madeleine Chansky
When COVID-19 upended our High Holy Day plans, we at Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) partnered with Material, a modern marketing services company powered by analytics, deep human understanding, and design thinking, to conduct a professional survey among our congregants to gain the community’s perspectives. The responses unlock key insights to develop impactful High Holy Day services for the Jewish community. Given that most congregations nationwide and across the world are likewise weighing how to hold meaningful and engaging services under the current circumstances, we felt that it was helpful to share our results and recommendations.
As Jews, the principle of Pikuach Nefesh compels us to prioritize human life over all else, and as such, we’ve adapted new behaviors like wearing masks and physical distancing for the sake of the community, even if at times these actions lead us to break from Jewish laws. So how do we best engage our congregations on the High Holy Days while protecting each other from the spread of COVID-19?
- KEEP THE EXPERIENCE LIVE, BUT VIRTUAL
“I expect it to be totally online – would love options, like a ‘choose your own adventure’ online so we could choose parts – but some combo of recorded options and livestreaming”
A live service, even when virtual, will help engage congregants to maintain an intimate and powerful experience. 80% of respondents said that they are highly likely to attend a live streamed service, so they can enjoy the normal delights of services such as the banter between rabbis and cantor vs. 30% for pre-recorded modules. A virtual service could also help avoid possible feelings of elitism or alienation that may arise among communities from in-person services right now as congregants may question the decision making of who will or will not attend in person due to COVID-19 health guidelines.
That said, some synagogues may choose to diversify services by including some pre-recorded clips. Others will offer a mix of prerecorded and virtual services, or during pre-recorded streams, they might open Zoom room synagogue lobbies so that congregants can pray the livestream together. Consider ways to produce recordings with some tech support that are visually stimulating and build on the elements to be shared during the live experience so they don’t come off as cold or lacking warmth.
- THERE MAY BE SOME DISAPPOINTMENT
“The in-person experience will be missed but online will be fine in these crazy times”
Acknowledge the sadness and loss of this important tradition as a community. Many are sad the experience will not be in person, though they do accept that virtual services are a must amid COVID-19.
- AIM FOR SESSIONS NO LONGER THAN 60 MINUTES
“I don’t see sitting in front of a screen for hours at one sitting for services, so breaking it up would allow more content.”
Avoid “Zoom fatigue” with services that are ~60 minutes. This is most likely to appeal to congregants who are less connected to Jewish rituals.
70% of those that feel more connection are interested in longer services. For those who prefer longer experiences, consider additional service modules that can extend worship in a meaningful way (e.g., including the sermon in one service, the Torah reading in another). Creative communities are announcing ahead of time the liturgical elements of each module so worshippers can design their own experience.
- REALLY THINK THROUGH WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT FOR YOUR CONGREGATION
“The uplifting music and the sermons [are a must]”
Online services are certainly different from in-person services, but keeping the most important elements of your services will make the experience a little less foreign and help maintain engagement. This may look like cutting down on time for the Rabbi’s sermon, including only traditional prayers or songs, or offering particular experiences as a separate module from the main services. We found the highest ranked modules and elements includes main services (79%), cantor singing (79%) and rabbi sermon (70%).
- FIND A BALANCE OF COVID-19 DISCUSSION
“We would like to feel more normal by at least having some service and things that don’t always talk about COVID”
COVID-19 has had – and is still having – a large impact on everyone’s lives. Although it is an easy centerpiece to base everything around, some have expressed their concern with letting it control the narrative completely.
Find a balance of discussing COVID-19 as well as other topics. It can and should have its moments in the service, but avoid letting it be the overlying theme.
- THE CLERGY ARE THE KEY TO A SUCCESSFUL SERVICE
“A strong moderator for Zoom experiences has worked well”
As in any Zoom call or livestream production, a strong moderator is necessary for a great experience. If there’s a time to open up to the greater congregation, the clergy or congregation staff should control who has the opportunity to speak (the muting/unmuting process). Clergy and staff should also consider testing out the moderating logistics before going live.
We all wish we could be in-person this year. There’s no denying that. But if we take these steps in order to create a safe environment for all participants, we can still provide a truly engaging, fulfilling, and holy experience for our congregations.