The Why of Worship: It’s Not About Size or Platform if You Create Worship Models That Provide Meaning

Photo copyright Norm Levin, Congregation Rodef Sholom (San Rafael, CA)

By Cantor Rosalie Will

The questions the Jewish community will ask about “virtual” Jewish living, particularly worship, have only just begun. Once the mad-dash to the extremely complex High Holidays has subsided, we will ask, “What’s next?” 

Even as many communities begin to explore what a long-term hybrid (both in-person and virtual) relationship to communal Jewish life might look like, the question if congregations can survive by creating their own “virtual” worship has already arisen. For example, perhaps smaller backyard prayer gatherings will replace endless Zoom boxes and glitchy PowerPoint worship slides. Or, perhaps we will see an increase in people who find the “megashuls” around the country the best way to receive high-quality and well-produced virtual content. 

In the recent eJewish Philanthropy piece “COVID-19 and the 5781 High Holidays: Return of the Chavurah, the Rise of the virtual “MegaShul,” or the End of Communal Worship?” Brian Amkraut asks:

If we move to adopt these new modalities – either the backyard chavurah or the digital megashul, even if primarily out of momentary necessity, do they threaten to undermine the more established frameworks for communal worship on a long-term basis?

At the Union for Reform Judaism, we are pleased to report we have observed a robust and healthy middle ground.

Gone is the model of “We will teach you how to pray because that is why you come.” Those congregational clergy and leadership who had previously not engaged in many meaningful conversations with their communities about their worship needs, are now learning what people hope to get out of worship, what is challenging them in their lives, and how our tradition’s wisdom can be applied to today’s challenges. We are asking members of our communities why they get on Zoom – and why they worship in larger numbers than they previously did in-person.

What we’ve discovered is that our congregants – our partners in the sacred work of figuring out this “communal prayer” business – want to be in conversation with their congregational leadership. In this isolating time, they want to feel seen and directly involved in their spiritual practice. They want to be part of something larger than them, but not so large that they are anonymous.

The “virtual” worship model we have been forced into over the past six months has opened new conversations about belonging. Further, our data indicates that those who have not previously “joined” synagogues are engaging in virtual worship, and that those long time “members” are finding new ways of engaging with each other and the community despite the lack of a physical worship setting. These individuals and families are participating in dialogue about what worship models will provide meaning and are creating home rituals in which they had not previously engaged.

In her piece “Five Assumptions Failing Us Now,” consultant, coach, and transition expert Reverend Susan Beaumont writes:

During the pandemic, people are finding meaningful new ways to connect with us online in worship, programs, and service. These connections do not look anything like what we previously recognized as engagement [but it is]…People need to feel that they belong before they join.”

We are not so concerned about the megashul model, or congregations’ doors closing because everyone can join a highly-produced, popular worship model in another city, for the same reason so many of our colleagues had to decide how much High Holiday content to Zoom/livestream/pre-record: the members of our communities simply want to connect with one another. They want to share their lives, their hopes, their fears. They want to celebrate with people and clergy they know and see sanctuaries they have missed. They want to connect to a fellow traveler (via a Zoom breakout room) and share the prayers and reflections in their own hearts while opening themselves up to hear those of others in their community.

We are also considering what production values are good enough? What would congregational mission-based worship offer that a backyard chavurah can’t provide because it’s too informal, and a virtual megashul can’t provide because it’s too impersonal? There are some who find meaning and uplift in the thoughtful, dynamic work of large congregations who have the capacity to create beautiful visual and musical content with high production quality; these experiences add to the fabric of our virtual experiences. However, congregations without such capacity can get mired down in attempting to recreate such content, given not only their limited resources but also the fact that members of those communities simply may not need those types of experiences. The outcome might be overly complex worship that doesn’t connect or inspire.

It is also true that many liberal clergy and lay leaders have not equipped or encouraged small groups to worship on their own. While adult education classes, lecture series, and religious school/family programs can thrive with small groups of like-minded individuals, communal worship is a component of synagogue life where entire communities unite to share in the inspirational power of communal voice, to strengthen shared values, and to deepen their commitment to meaningful Jewish living.

We will soon have to explore whether virtual platforms allow for this as we approach the real possibility of hybrid worship models. While nothing is certain, we believe that building deeper relationships with our members, learning more about what such future models could look like, and helping our participants to feel seen and heard in these isolating times have indicated a leaning IN to the “congregation.” To be sure, they are not leaning into the building, but they are re-connecting with clergy and lay leadership, and with members and friends near and far who have shared similar stories and journeys connected by geography or social and relational history. They are being invited to share in the creation of meaningful content for themselves, their families, and their communities.

And perhaps, while we are wise to be concerned about sustainability and financial support, if those seeking meaningful Jewish connection can belong through relational and personal worship – both virtually and in-person – they might give more of themselves in ways that we are only just imagining.

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

Cross-posted on the URJ Blog.