The Pandemic Isn’t Going Away. We Must Grow Jewish Communal Institutions Now

By Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu

This pandemic is not going away. Yet many seem to be unable or unwilling to confront that reality. Across the Jewish communal world, I keep hearing people saying things like, “I can’t wait until we get back to normal” and “I have heard enough about COVID, we need to start talking about something else.”

I understand these sentiments. Of course, I do; I have expressed them myself. I feel them deeply. Who doesn’t want to see this virus over and done with? However, the reality is that we are living through a seismic event, one that will change us forever. It already has. Instead of simply wishing it over, it is time we started to adapt on a communal scale. We will be living with daily restrictions on our lives for at least another 6-12 months. When they do ease, they will ease slowly. More and more it appears that the approval of a vaccine will not miraculously return our society “back” to the way things were. Rather we will be entering a new normal. I anticipate that in-person social interactions will be less than they were ”BC” – before Corona.

The key to Jewish survival is community building. Building communities serves a dual purpose in that it helps both the individual and the synagogue/community. Individuals in the pandemic can feel isolated, anxious, alone and the community serves a vital purpose in helping them connect to others. At the same time, by connecting individuals to the community, the community itself flourishes rather than fading out. The question we as Jewish professionals must ask, from rabbis to JCCs to communal institutions, is: “How do we build community while face-to-face interactions are restricted?” 

From what I have witnessed over the past 7 months, some clear answers are emerging. The basic building blocks of community still hold today:

  1. One-to-one outreach. This is accomplished via phone calls, individual emails, and one-on-one Zoom meetings. Deepening existing relationships through these portals continues to be necessary and important during this time and should not be neglected.
  1. Communal gatherings on Zoom. We are all suffering from Zoom fatigue. But this does not mean we should pull away from the medium. It is actually working very effectively. At Hadassah, we have seen participation in our programs rise significantly over the past 7 months, precisely because people crave community – a way to connect. We have big national programs like “One Book, One Hadassah” that draw over a thousand participants at a time as well as smaller local virtual programs where people talk, connect and share ideas. Both serve a purpose. The larger programs remind people they are connected to a larger community, and the smaller groups work on a more personal level, helping people to build one-on-one connections.  

This same phenomenon is happening in synagogues across the country. Zoom services over the summer were active and engaging. People were happy to see each other’s faces in their boxes on the screen. With the advent of fall and the High Holidays, many synagogues switched to a livestreaming platform from within the sanctuary. This allowed for congregants to feel like they were sitting in the synagogue building rather than the rabbi’s basement. This switch was important for the communal experience of the awesomeness of the High Holiday experience. But several rabbis reported to me they have now lost the interactions from the faces on Zoom. Moving forward, both are needed. Just as Hadassah hosts both large more impersonal programs and smaller ones with individual faces on the screen, so too must synagogues. 

Communities have always been a mix of smaller personal interactions within larger spaces. This is what we must strive to build now. Jewish communal leaders should consider this balance for their particular community. How many large formal events are needed to maintain a sense of larger connection and community, and how many smaller personal “face to face” events can be supplemented via a screen? Both kinds of interactions are needed to build the deeper connections we crave.

This is all possible. We have already been doing it now for 7 months. There has been trial and error. This trial and error will continue. Now we must stop imagining a time when all will return to “normal” as it was before COVID-19. This is the new normal. Let’s make the most of it. 

Contrary to popular belief, we can strengthen our communities during this time. We can even grow them. People need connection now more than ever. Because we believe this, Hadassah is launching a new nationwide membership campaign, “Hadassah Is Here,” to emphasize that even in (especially in) difficult times, Hadassah is here – to support the individual member, to keep our own community strong, and to help with our healing work in the larger world-wide community. We connect new members to a large array of opportunities, enabling them to join one large, vibrant community as well as several various smaller, more intimate ones. Hadassah offers several large national online programs in diverse subjects that include Covid Medical Updates, Defining Zionism in the 21st Century, Advocating for Gender Equity in Medical Research, Exercise and Wellness, small local programs on healthcare and wellness, and programs based on professional interests from our three professional councils: Nurses & Allied Health Professionals Council, Attorneys and Judges Council, and Physicians Council

As a long winter begins to descend, we may be stuck at home. But we are not alone. The Jewish community as a whole can use this time to reach out, connect people to each other, and clearly demonstrate the value in belonging to a community during this time. The age of bowling alone has ended. We need each other now more than ever. Jewish communal institutions can fill this need. 

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the Director of the Engagement Division at Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, and the Co-Founder of the Gender Equity in Hiring Project.