Synagogues and Congregants: A COVID Covenant

Lehava Netivot via the PikiWiki – Israel free image collection project.

By Rabbi Nathan Weiner

The congregant who lost her job due to COVID and decides not to renew her membership this year. The synagogue that makes variable payment amounts embarrassing and difficult.

The congregant who calls to yell at leadership about the synagogue’s approach to in-person gathering. The synagogue leaders who are insensitive to the emotions underneath the congregant’s frustration.

When COVID-19 hit, synagogues closed their physical doors, pivoting their presence online. Synagogue clergy, staff, and lay leadership went into overdrive to figure out how to bring meaningful and spirit filled Jewish encounter to congregants in this new environment. In the synagogue where I am the rabbi, Congregation Beth Tikvah in Marlton, NJ, we of course did it, too. For our leadership, the work has felt important, difficult, new, scary, sacred, and above all, imperfect.

The synagogue/congregant relationship is sacred. The vignettes above are a small sampling of some of the ways in which congregants and synagogues may not be honoring that. Below, find suggested covenantal language for use by synagogues and congregants called a “COVID Covenant.” The values and terms below speak to the experiences of synagogue leaders and of congregants trying to navigate Jewish community (and the rest of their lives) during COVID-19. I hope this will begin to put words to how we can, collaboratively and appropriately, navigate this time with vital synagogues, and engaged, supported congregants.

Decision Making
Dan L’chaf Zchut (Judge Favorably)

Congregants: We, the synagogue congregants, acknowledge that our lay and professional synagogue leaders are overwhelmed by a constant flow of large decisions. We understand that leaders are required to make impossible health and safety decisions in a charged environment, often with incomplete information. We commit to behaving respectfully towards synagogue leaders, even when we disagree with them. We appreciate their commitment to us and their commitment to the synagogue that we all care about. We understand that leaders may make decisions that we perceive as overly cautious, but we recognize that these decisions are being made thoughtfully, with tremendous anguish, and with the best interests of the synagogue and its membership in mind. We understand that there are good people in our leadership who are trying their best to apply Jewish values and adapt Jewish ritual to this new environment.

Synagogues: We, the synagogue leadership, pledge to listen with open ears, hearts, and minds to each of our members. We commit to remaining sensitive to how congregants feel while remaining committed to ensuring the highest levels of safety, using the skills and information we have at the time. Further, we recognize that this time is scary, stressful, and full of uncertainty for our members. As a result, we acknowledge that some congregants may unwittingly act out towards synagogue leaders in ways that do not live up to their best ideals. While making sure to ensure our own emotional safety, we commit to responding to all congregants with compassion.

Dues and Finances
Halbanat Panim (Do Not Embarrass)

Congregants: We, the synagogue congregants, understand that synagogue leaders are concerned about their ability to meet financial obligations this year due to the implications of COVID-19. I recognize that it is better for the synagogue if I maintain my membership with a dues accommodation rather than taking a break from membership due to financial hardship. (Note: most synagogues do not have a pool of money set aside to offset dues accomodations. Rather, leaders simply agree to accept less money. Therefore, an accomodation is almost always better for the synagogue than a break from membership/not joining.) While I may not “use” my membership each day, or I may find virtual community unappealing, I know that I am part of a sacred community. I take comfort in knowing that the synagogue, its clergy, and its resources are there for me at a moment’s notice. I commit to supporting my congregation in some way.

Synagogues: We, the synagogue leadership, commit to allowing for dues accommodation requests with low barriers and with little to no probing questions. We recognize that asking for a dues accommodation feels uncomfortable and sometimes shameful for many of our congregants. We see the congregant/synagogue relationship as sacred, and will ensure full discretion, open hearts, low barriers, and an easy, affirming, yes. We value each of our congregants and their many contributions. We recognize that more than anything, our congregants will remember how we made them feel during what is certainly a difficult time. Therefore, now and always, we commit to ensuring that all of our congregants feel part of a community that cares for their souls more than it cares about their money. Further, we commit to assisting our congregants in finding available community resources to help them navigate whatever challenges COVID throws at them. Our synagogue is a Kehilla Kedosha, a sacred community, and will do everything within its power to live up to that ideal.

Practicing Gratitude
Kaharat HaTov (Acknowledging the Good)

Congregants: We, the synagogue congregants, understand and appreciate that synagogue leadership has had to rethink the entire structure of how the congregation functions during COVID. Every synagogue communication, email, phone call, mailing, update, class, service, program, support group, and the like has had to be re-planned, re-thought, and/or completely re-imagined. Many synagogue leaders have had to become tech savvy in new and often intimidating ways. I further acknowledge that synagogues are community organizations and have committees and processes for making decisions. I am thankful that my synagogue staff has involved lay leadership to help guide these decisions, and I am thankful for how my synagogue has continued to shepherd this community that I have come to rely upon. I recognize that synagogue leaders have done this in the midst of near impossible restrictions, uncertainty, and changing benchmarks.

Synagogues: We, the synagogue leadership, recognize that learning, praying, grieving, organizing, and pursuing social justice over the internet is new for many of us. We are sensitive that this is so for leadership, clergy, and congregants alike. We understand that coming together virtually presents new types of barriers for our members, as it makes it more accessible for others. We are sensitive to the pain that comes from not being able to celebrate and grieve together in person. We are grateful that congregants have been willing to engage with this new medium, and have been willing to try new things with us. We are thankful for the continued support of our congregants who stand with us, as we try and adapt (successfully at times, and unsuccessfully at others) to this new environment. We appreciate congregants giving us the creative space to be bold in shepherding a meaningful and vibrant Judaism in this new and challenging era.

Conclusion and Author’s Note:

Hillel said: do not separate yourself from the community, Do not trust in yourself until the day of your death, Do not judge your fellow man until you have reached his place…”
(Pirkei Avot 2:4)

Lean in. The sages of the Mishna as quoted in Pirkei Avot, often disagreed sharply. They did so, though, “for the sake of heaven,” with good intentions for how to best shepherd Judaism forward, despite their differences, in a difficult time. Today, clergy and staff are working harder than ever to do the same thing; to create, engage, lead, and support in meaningful ways. Synagogue leaders desire to do it well. Let them know when they do, and lovingly hold them to account when they do not. Either way, now is the time to lean in. Do not separate yourself from the community. With God and with community, you will not have to walk this journey alone.

Rabbi Nathan Weiner is a 2016 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Marlton, NJ (USCJ).