Is COVID-19 the death of the synagogue? – The Jerusalem Post

Posted By on August 8, 2020

The Hebrew word hefker represents the concept of total disarray. It means there is no organizational structure. It is a form of anarchy. Hefker happens where there is no central rule. It is hefker when and where a minimum standard of behavior is no longer adhered to.

COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on the world, and the Jewish community is not immune to its destructive force. As a consequence of the pandemic, hefker now rules in many synagogues across America. Religious institutions have been asked or told to undergo a shift in business as usual. The numbers of worshipers have been severely restricted. Prayer length has been shortened. Participants have been asked to wear masks and to maintain social distance.

And many do. But many is not all, and too many flaunt the system.

There are entire areas in Brooklyn, NY, where large numbers of Jews live and pray, where almost no one wears masks. Not in synagogue and not on the streets. And they certainly dont socially distance.

In other parts of New York, suburban areas and upstate, prayer areas are inside buildings and outside on lawns and in parking lots, even under tents. There are porch groups and backyard minyanim (prayer quorums) where people engage in ad hoc prayer. Some offer those who come to pray a choice: Choose the location that best fits your new lifestyle. Choices include a section for mask-wearers, a section for those who prefer not to wear masks or a blend of both. They all get takers.

There are synagogues where kids are permitted and synagogues where they are not permitted. In some, they are required to sit next to a parent and not roam around, and in others children can roam around freely. Sometimes there is an age requirement, in others not.

Many of the people who choose not to wear masks and not to socially distance taunt those who do. They flaunt their independent decision-making and call the other group alarmist and extremist. They flaunt their non-compliance.

There are not supposed to be social gatherings. That would include the long-held tradition of having a communal kiddush after praying. But many synagogues still have them.

Hefker. Plain and simple, hefker.

Even as synagogues begin to open, as rabbis and responsible leaders ease up on some restrictions, they are not at peak attendance. Ad hoc prayer groups have become comfortable for many. What would be a temporary disruption in our lives back in March has become our new normal. Some people have discovered that they actually like praying at home, alone. Or they like the feel of small groups. Its the case even in the Orthodox world.

FOR MANY, attending a synagogue is more about socializing than it was about prayer. And if there is no kiddush and no socializing, there is no reason to attend.

That does not mean they are assimilating or violating Shabbat or taking their kids out of Jewish day schools. It means they are not attending synagogue not attending because, spiritually, they do not need to attend. And Dr. Fauci and the CDC and their governors and religious leaders have sanctioned the act of not going to brick and mortar places of worship and of not praying with a minyan.

The High Holy Days are fast approaching. Traditionally, that is the time when even those who do not regularly attend services, attend. They buy High Holiday seats tickets. It is the season when people make contributions, donating money in memory of their loved ones. The annual Yizkor (memorial) book has become a valuable fund-raiser for many communities.

Bottom line? In addition to the spiritually uplifting side of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they were synagogue money-makers. Over the years, the High Holy Days provided a significant source of needed revenue for the operational budget of synagogues.

This year, that is about the change.

COVID-19 and hefker have combined and become a one-two punch that just might knock out the model of the synagogue as we know it. COVID-19 and hefker might have caused the destruction of the synagogue as we know it.

If a synagogue was simply a prayer room where people came and left with almost no expenses, they could manage to weather this crisis. But most synagogues across America have a business model that articulates that they are much more than simply a prayer room. They are a place for classes and childrens groups and catered events. All that costs money and brings in money. And most of that in some places all of that is now gone.

The business model of the synagogue must change if Jewish organized prayer hopes to survive. Zoom teaching is one vehicle of change. But it is only one. With Zoom or virtual learning, anyone located anywhere has the potential to click on, usually for free.

Even before the pandemic synagogues were dying a slow death. With few exceptions, and rentals aside, most Jewish buildings today have fewer than 30 people under their roofs at a single moment more than once a week.

If synagogues hope to survive, they must reign in the non-compliant and make it a place where everyone feels safe. They must be creative. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or unaffiliated, synagogues must create an entire virtual world that is dynamic, enticing and magnetizing.

If synagogues hope to survive, they must answer three questions: Why should I join? Why should I give you my hard-earned money? What I am going to get in return?

And then they must provide two models of answers: They must give virtual answers and they must give brick-and-mortar answers.

If they fail, even long after COVID-19, hefker will prevail.

The author is a political commentator who hosts the TV show Thinking Out Loud on JBS TV. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern.

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Is COVID-19 the death of the synagogue? - The Jerusalem Post

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