Synagogue Innovation in the Age of Corona

Hospital chaplain “visiting” a patient

By Rabbi Sid Schwarz

I know that I am not alone in being impressed at how quickly the Jewish community was able to provide program content via the web as much of North America moved to “shelter in place.” As we begin to adjust to our new, surreal lives, more is being written about the shape of our post-pandemic world. My particular interest is the impact on spiritual communities in North America.

For years I have been working with rabbis and synagogues to re-think how they can create more compelling spiritual communities. In recent years, the main delivery vehicle for that training has been a two-year fellowship for rabbis called the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI). CLI uses the discipline of adaptive leadership to equip rabbis with the tools to be change agents in their congregations. Adaptive leadership is, to paraphrase the title of the Ron Heifetz book that launched the field, leadership without easy answers. When situations are complex and desired outcomes are not always clear, leaders need to be nimble, bold and strategic. It would be hard to think of another time when adaptive leadership skills are more necessary than this Age of Corona. I have been gratified by hearing from a good number of CLI alumni about how the training they received in the program has better prepared them to respond to the current challenges facing North American synagogues.

One of the biggest obstacles to changing institutions is that the default posture of virtually all institutions tends to be stasis. Even when the actors in a system claim that they need and want change, there are dozens of ways that systems push back at those who take it upon themselves to introduce innovation. This is especially true in synagogues because those who are most committed to synagogue life highly value the way their particular denominational brand provides continuity with the past. This explains why the conservative impulse in religious institutions is so strong.

At Facebook, a motto was coined to encourage innovative behavior: “move fast, break things.” It has been coined in many entrepreneurial settings to encourage bold, risk taking. For many of the rabbis I work with, such risk-taking is challenging. The leadership of many congregations is made up of people who like the way things are done. Even if they don’t like everything, there is a certain comfort to continuity in religious settings. Innovation is definitely the road less taken.

Yet the Covid-19 pandemic is bringing change to our doorsteps. Virtually everything we have done, and the way we have done it, is up for grabs. That includes synagogue life. It has only been two months since most synagogues in North America closed their doors and took most of their programming online. Rabbis have been under enormous pressure to transition their worship services and programming to a medium in which they were less than expert while, at the same time, provide pastoral services to congregants who are anxious about their health, the welfare of loved ones and economic insecurity. Even so, rabbis are reporting to me that the attendance at their Zoom classes and worship are up between 20-50%!

Rabbis have become, literally, spiritual first-responders. Jews who are members of congregations are keenly aware of this fact and are deeply appreciative. It is also clear that the fear and social isolation imposed on all of us is making people value spiritual community in a way that has not been typical for most non-Orthodox Jews in the past. Combine these factors with a situation when so much is in flux, we stand at a moment when synagogues are capable of changing the way they have functioned far more dramatically than ever before. Below I will share three broad areas in which I am already seeing some changes becoming manifest. Many of the examples come from rabbis and congregations in the CLI orbit (current Fellows, Mentors and alumni). I put these forward as ideas that I hope more synagogues consider adopting.

  1. Take advantage of content created by others and look for opportunities to collaborate 

Many rabbis feel like they have to “prove” the value proposition of their congregations since so many usual activities cannot happen. Many congregations are doing more programming now than pre-Covid! And that is on top of the increase in demand for pastoral attention. It is not sustainable.

National organizations like the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS), the Hadar Institute, Limmud North America and others make available high caliber content and the demand is at an all-time high across the board. In April, Hadar experienced a 102% increase in downloads of their Torah commentaries and a 500% increase in people accessing their Zoom classes over the previous month. IJS introduced a 30-minute, free daily meditation sit every day at 12:30 (ET) that draws 300 or so participants. Over 5000 people have signed up for IJS’ free Covid response offerings. Limmud North America, an umbrella for 18 community-wide Jewish learning festivals, transformed itself overnight into an on-line learning community. Their March 29th eFestival attracted 1200 people and another eFestival is scheduled for May 24th. In 2019, Limmud attracted 7000 participants at 13 discreet events. They will surpass that number for 2020 after five months.

All of these institutions had existing constituencies of course. They are now finding a much larger market. Synagogues should take advantage of the expertise and reach of such national organizations and make them a feature of what is offered to their own members. Synagogue life can be parochial. Why not use this opportunity to make Jews aware of some of the amazing content that is produced by national Jewish organizations?

An extension of this principle is the value of collaboration between synagogues. I have long argued that the business model of synagogues is flawed in that most congregations operate as private clubs exclusively for their dues-paying members. This is a 20th century model that is outdated. The Age of Corona has made it clear that we live in a global system. For the past month I have joined my daughter for her favorite Kabbalat Shabbat minyan in Israel (on Friday morning, of course).

Collaboration with other congregations is a win/win. Rabbis realize that they don’t need to do everything and congregants get to experience other rabbis and congregations. Rabbi Arielle Rosenberg (Shir Tikvah, Minneapolis, MN) reached out to a handful of rabbinic colleagues she knew across the country and, each day of Pesach, a different rabbi led a 30-minute, creative Hallel experience that congregants from all participating congregations could join. None of the participating congregations would have had the critical mass to do a daily Hallel but, collaboratively, they averaged 30 participants each day.

One of the most ambitious collaborations that continues to expand is Jew it at Home. It started as a conversation between rabbis at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and neighboring Temple Isaiah. As of this writing there are 30 partner organizations, 25 of which are synagogues. Each partner organization is welcome to offer unlimited numbers of programs on the platform. On Friday night and Shabbat morning the platform offers an array of different worship experiences from partners. The programming quickly became so rich and robust that there are now channels to organize the offerings. These channels include learning, spirituality, book groups, film clubs, health and wellness, singing and more. There is no cost to log on to any program and members of all partner organizations can access programs any day of the week, from morning till night.

The early response to Jew it at Home has exceeded expectations. Rabbis need to overcome their concern that they will “lose” their members to other congregations. The early response has been encouraging. Participants feel Judaically enriched by the array of offerings and there is still the comfort of “coming home” to a program or Shabbat experience at one’s own congregation.

  1. Time for Serious Inreach

There isn’t a congregation in North America that does not have membership that is under-engaged in synagogue programming. But the shelter in place reality that we all share does create a sense of isolation and a deeper need for community than ever before. A congregation’s ability to touch base with its members will make an enormous impact on the sense that the synagogue cares about them. I would encourage congregations to prioritize the members who are not participating in online worship services and classes.

There are many ways to do inreach effectively: a simple check-in to see if they have any needs that can be met by the congregation; an invitation to join some upcoming program; an inquiry about what kind of affinity group might interest them. Of course, any such inquiry requires diligent follow-up. The failure to follow up to an expressed interest will squander any good will that an inreach effort can generate.

This is also an ideal time to tap into the gifts of members. Synagogues that move away from top-down programming and that allow members to be actively involved in offering content, makes a powerful impact on communal culture. It moves institutions away from being transactional and conveys the message that the community is on a collective journey of Jewish learning and discovery.

For any kind of inreach effort, a script with talking points is very helpful, as is a form to create a feedback loop to the rabbi, staff and lay leadership, where appropriate. The more widely this task can be shared (e.g. Board members, a special task force, etc.) the better. Congregation Bnai Shalom in Westborough, MA has put together a most impressive inreach effort called CBS Cares. Bnai Shalom’s rabbi, Rachel Gurevitz, is a wonderful resource if you want some advice on how this kind of initiative can be structured.

Synagogues often deliver their services and programming to a small fraction of their membership. Given that most people are still largely at home, this is an ideal time to reach beyond core members and connect with a broader cross-section of congregational households. If the conversations are conducted well and the results are thoughtfully reviewed by leadership, this effort can also open the door to a greater variety of programming than might have been the case previously and a significant uptick of members being engaged.

  1. Slay sacred cows and innovate

This moment provides an unprecedented window to move synagogues away from practices and modes of operation that are dysfunctional and to introduce innovations that, in normal times, would likely have faced opposition. Leaders are given wide latitude to step into crisis moments and take action, often with far less resistance than happens normally.

I am seeing examples of this phenomenon within our, relatively small, CLI cohort. (I will not mention names so as not to compromise changes and innovations that are still “in process.”) One rabbi of a large midwestern Reform congregation inherited a Friday night service from her predecessor, who is still a presence in the community as rabbi emeritus. She never particularly liked the service but it enjoyed a large attendance and changing it would have clearly upset a significant number of the regulars. Since the shelter in place order took effect, she now leads services from the sanctuary with her husband and it is livestreamed to the congregation. She has changed the music, shortened the service and included her children in the candlelighting and with the ritual blessing of children. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. The service reflects much more who she is as a rabbi; rest assured, she will not be going back to the old service.

A second rabbi in our cohort has advocated for years to merge several congregational religious schools in his northeastern city. The demographics have long made such a move logical, but institutional jealousies have prevented it. Suddenly, the respective institutions are coming to the table and a merger is a likely outcome of the Covid-19 crisis. A third rabbi in our cohort has felt constrained by a communal culture she inherited that privileged lay leadership of worship services. In recent weeks, the new reality of Zoom services made her central to planning and leading services. She has been able to put her signature on the services in a way not previously possible. Again, the new worship style will likely outlive the shelter in place constraints.

One innovation shared with me came from Rabbi Aviva Fellman, who adapted a practice that was created by a bereaved widow at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX soon after the shelter in place orders took effect. The deceased was a beloved, long-standing member of the congregation and everyone was heartbroken, not just by his passing, but by the fact that there would be no place for an outpouring of love for him and support for his widow. The widow suggested that on the way back from the cemetery, friends could pay respects to her, as the mourner, while in their cars in the congregation’s very large parking lot. Rabbi David Stern, Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El described to me the scene after the funeral, with hundreds of cars lined up in two rows, well-spaced, providing a corridor for the mourners to drive through and be greeted and comforted by people standing in front of their vehicles. He called it one of the most moving moments of his rabbinate. You can see a short video of this most creative, invented ritual at Beth Israel in Worcester, MA here. Rabbi Fellman calls it Hamakom Yenachem, the words said when attendees at a funeral create two rows for mourners to pass through.

A final example of innovation. Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Atlanta, GA set up a Facebook page that is called “Spiritual and Communal Responses to Covid-19.” After six weeks, over 7000 people had signed up, mostly clergy from every imaginable faith tradition. The FB page has multiple threads, serving a wide variety of needs. But most interesting to me are the creative ideas around life-cycle functions, liturgy and ritual. An occupational hazard of being a spiritual leader is that you quickly get accustomed to doing the same things in the same way, week after week (year after year?). But if religion is meant to reflect the lives we are actually living, the rituals and customs need to be dynamic and not static. I fully expect that the clergy who are now experimenting with inherited customs to make them more relevant and suitable to the Age of Corona will find people excited by the way religion can give meaning to their lives at this difficult moment in time.

Looking Ahead

One technique of adaptive leadership is to engineer a disruption that destabilizes an institution just enough to create an opening for some needed change. The Age of Corona has created a massive disruption of every institution in the world, synagogue included. Rabbis and congregational lay leaders would be well-served by seeing beyond the crisis mode of the moment so as to think more expansively about how to make synagogues the compelling spiritual communities that they can be, long after the Age of Corona is over.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz is a Senior Fellow at Hazon and the author of several books including Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future. He is the director of the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI). Rabbis interested in applying for the next CLI Cohort can register their interest here.