Don’t call it hybrid: Multi-access is the future for Jewish communities

In Short

Multi-access opens up our imagination

Not surprisingly over the past number of months, the word “hybrid” has become popularized to refer to this new world we have entered. Many of us likely first associated the word hybrid with a new model of car – the Toyota Prius. It was one of the first hybrids to hit the market 20 years ago. But what exactly made it a hybrid? It is a car that runs on both the power of gas and electricity. So, really, the word hybrid is just a fancy term to refer to a mixture of two different elements. It has been used to describe work that will be done at both home and in the office, building community on-line and in person, and to refer to the new arena of congregational life. We want to make an argument for a new, and more precise term that some congregations have started using: multi-access.

The challenge with the word hybrid is that it is too limited to describe the new possibilities that are emerging in congregational life. When we use the term hybrid, many leaders assume it means worship services that are both online and in person, happening simultaneously, and that is the only option. Because of its binary nature, the word also sets up an unrealistic expectation of “getting it right” — that somehow the perfect formula can be found. This is a very limiting assumption.

Although multi-access isn’t quite as catchy of a term, it can be helpful in opening up our eyes to what is possible. Multi-access is focused on people, hybrid is focused on technologies. Multi-access allows us to adopt the viewpoint of the people who actually make up our communities. How do they access the community? What are the various ways these individuals could access our communal moments? This language shift also encourages thinking about accessibility, diversity, and mobility. Many leaders have observed how their offerings this year have become more accessible to home-bound individuals, college students who live out of state, or family members in another country.

Multi-access opens up our imagination, giving us more than just two options for how we gather. While hybrid thinking leads to a fixed duality of synchronous programming (offering an in-person and virtual option for the same moment), multi-access reminds us that our experiences, learning, content, and gatherings can happen at different times, in different spaces, for different people, in different ways. Imagine the example of an adult education experience: one group gathers on a Sunday afternoon in a park, another group meets on zoom on a weekday afternoon, and another group is in the building during a weekday evening. This asynchronous approach gives us the flexibility to meet people in their actual lives, where they really are, creating different access points for the ways they want to engage. Unlike a hybrid model, we know we can be nimble and adjust as we learn more, as our people change and grow, finding new access points for gathering that may be imperfect but are dynamic and evolving.

The creative potential of multi-access has wider implications for our buildings as well. With a multi-access frame, a building may only need to be used certain days of the week, allowing it to remain dark, giving staff flexible time from home, saving on security and energy needs, and minimizing wear and tear on the physical plant. Alternatively, on the days it is dark for the congregational community, it could be used to generate revenue by sharing it with other local community groups.

Recognizing an overabundance of choices can be overwhelming, so here is one tool for getting started: a grid shared in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, that looks at two axes of place and time. Although we used worship as an example to use with the grid, it could be used for any congregational offering. This tool is not meant to box us in to 4 choices, but rather can be used as a frame to help generate new ideas and see the multiplicity of options.

Courtesy URJ

Download an accessible/printable version of this grid.

Now is an exciting time to lean into designing multi-access opportunities for the people who want to join us in our communities. Whether it’s imagining multi-access prayer and community experiences at different times and in different spaces over Shabbat or creating different access points for Jewish education for a diverse adult and kid population, the flexibility we have learned in this past year may just be what moves us into a richer connection to each other and our vision for our future.

Rabbi Esther L. Lederman (she/her) is the Union for Reform Judaism‘s director of congregational innovation and sits on the Central Conference of American Rabbis‘ task force on the experience of women in the rabbinate.

Cantor Rosalie Will is the Union for Reform Judaism’s director of worship and music. She previously served as the cantor at Temple Emanuel in Kensington, MD.

Rabbi Leora Kaye (she/her) is the director of program for the Union for Reform Judaism.