an older woman happily holds out her arms to greet an old friend in a large synagogue sanctuary
Congregants greet each other at Sherith Israel’s first in-person Shabbat service on June 18, 2021. (Photo/Natalie Schrik)

After three years of Covid, synagogues have ‘new normal’ 

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Three years ago this week, much of the world came to a sudden halt. Schools locked their gates, office buildings went quiet, businesses closed — even synagogues stood empty.

As the months went on, in the face of constantly changing health regulations and public fears, synagogues had to be nimble. They needed to figure out how to continue serving the needs of the community — connection, comfort, ritual — while keeping everyone safe and Covid-free.

What no one knew then was that the changes made out of necessity would end up as innovations that people wanted to keep around. California has just ended its Covid state of emergency, but some of the measures taken in response will stick.

Rabbi Bridget Wynne
Rabbi Bridget Wynne

“Not that the pandemic has been good — the pandemic has been horrendous!” said Rabbi Bridget Wynne of Jewish Gateways. “But I do think we have just had affirmed for us how much building things based in our community, rather than top down, can be so important.”

It was clear early on that synagogues would have to adapt. Many added streaming options so they could continue holding services and, later, events such as b’nai mitzvahs and Torah study. Getting the technology up and running was a challenge in itself, even as people got used to this new style of gathering and worship.

For most synagogues, streaming is a practice that continues to be a part of weekly operations.

Gordon Gladstone, executive director of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, said Sherith had never streamed anything before the pandemic. It was not a natural shift; the common understanding had always been that “participating in the minyan is about participating in the moment, in the practice, in the community. And you do that by showing up,” he said. “It’s not about spectating.”

Gordon Gladstone
Gordon Gladstone

But now that the Reform synagogue has become comfortable with streaming, its leaders have come to accept the value of a virtual connection. They’ve invested in it financially, too, with a dedicated studio room and expensive professional equipment.

“We continue to believe that the core of the experience is being in person, and being a participant in that experience,” Gladstone said. “But it’s very clear that there’s an expectation now that people would be able to stream services, or any other program. And you have to meet people where they’re at.”

For people with mobility issues or illnesses, technology has made it possible to stay connected in a way that never happened before. That’s a reason Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont has also stayed invested in streaming, in a big way.

“We don’t just stream our services, we have them in an interactive format,” explained executive director Michael Saxe-Taller. “Our leadership speaks directly to the people on Zoom, we have opportunities for people on Zoom to communicate back.”

He doesn’t think Kehilla will ever revert back to in-person-only services.

Rabbi Mark Bloom streams a live Shabbat service from Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, May 2020. (Photo/Michael Fox)
Rabbi Mark Bloom streams a live Shabbat service from Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, May 2020. (Photo/Michael Fox)

“I think one of the things [Covid] taught us was that we already had a portion of our community who, for a variety of reasons, found getting to the building challenging,” he said. “In some ways, this just showed us an area that we were not attentive to.”

But there will always be a tradeoff, he said. “We are being more accessible doing this,” Saxe-Taller said, “and we also are missing some of the connection that comes when people gather together.”

Even Jewish Baby Network, a program of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, has held on to some virtual programming. The group provides a network of resources for parents of newborns and young children, or those expecting.

Director Carol Booth said playgroups for babies and young children are best held in person, for obvious reasons. But one important JBN program will be staying virtual. The “Jewish Birth Prep Workshop” helps parents incorporate ritual into the birthing process, gives advice on Hebrew names, and informs about Jewish perspectives on parenting.

During the pandemic the program attracted people in other parts of the country, and Booth wants it to stay that way. “We had families from all over the country attend our birth prep workshop,” Booth said.

We continue to believe that the core of the experience is being in person.

Turning to streaming was a “difficult decision” for Conservative synagogue Congregation Sinai of San Jose, said Rabbi Josh Berkenwald. To avoid tech on Shabbat while still serving the community, the synagogue settled for a kind of passive stream, with a camera that turns on automatically — a practice that continues today.  Most congregants are happy with the compromise.

“I think that was definitely the right move,” he said.

Rabbi Jaymee Alpert
Rabbi Jaymee Alpert

At a neighboring Conservative synagogue on the Peninsula, Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, Rabbi Jaymee Alpert said during the pandemic’s height the synagogue made the decision to stream.

“I’ve heard from congregants that, Covid aside, they’re finding that sometimes Zoom really works better for them than coming in person, and that they’re able to attend more frequently,” she said.

At Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, the lessons from Covid are being taken forward in a concrete way. A new space is being built with health and safety built in, including a better air-ventilation system and more outdoor space, according to executive director Tracey Klapow. It will be built to accommodate more people, too.

Tracey Klapow
Tracey Klapow

“Purim was our final in-person event before we were asked to shelter at home,” Klapow said. “Three years later, we welcomed over 300 people back indoors for a joyful Purim celebration, which illustrates how far we’ve come since that time.”

For Jewish Gateways, which describes itself as an “open Jewish community,” real rewards have emerged from some of the changes made during the pandemic.

For example, “we started so many groups that we wouldn’t have started before,” Wynne said, including a Jewish book club and a group for children of Holocaust survivors. Some are now choosing to switch over to in-person meetings, but it’s up to each group’s members.

Wynne said this member-led approach has been a touchstone throughout the pandemic.

“I think we just worked harder on that than we normally would have because people were so motivated,” she said.

For most synagogues, streaming seems to be here to stay. And for people who just want to get back to the way things were pre-pandemic, Alpert has an answer ready.

“We’re not going back,” she said. “We’re just moving forward to whatever the next new normal is.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.