What You Need To Know
How COVID-19 Is Challenging Synagogues Across The World

2020 will go down in history as a life-changing year for many people the world over.

Tags: Synagogue
Guest Post ,

Empty Shul At Grave site
Empty Shul At Grave site
צילום: Ohr Torah Baal Haness

2020 will go down in history as a life-changing year for many people the world over. The COVID-19 pandemic showed many we need less to get by and be happy than most think. Shopping, dining out, dressing up, putting on makeup, attending concerts, even leaving home for work and school - the pandemic provided insight on a simpler life.

While there were undoubtedly many benefits to a period of focus on self, family, and personal growth, it also provided a unique challenge to houses of worship. After all, balancing spiritual life with a need to remain isolated is difficult. Religious tradition emphasizes community. Even those who seek a more cloistered life in service to faith do not do so alone.

Technology As A Saving Grace

While not all embrace technology and some think of it as either an obligation or a distraction, it has proven to be a saving grace in terms of bringing people together during the COVID-19 struggles. Family dinners and rituals are still observed, even if it is now from a distance. Video conferencing software such as Zoom brings multiple people in multiple households together for prayer, celebration, and remembrance. Though travel restrictions continue to keep people separated, there is more time for faith and communication to flourish in this challenging year.

Yet, synagogues largely remain empty. Those that do hold services are limited to very low occupancy. The question of how to retain the feeling of community, especially for those of the Orthodox faith, hasn't been easy. Leaders around the world have challenged governments for the right to assemble for purposes of worship. However, it's far from the first time that disease has presented a challenge to worship inside the synagogue. In many ways, today's society is better equipped to overcome such obstacles.

The Comforts of Video-Based Worship

One of the most effective ways to bring the synagogue home to families who cannot attend in person is through video. Whether a live broadcast or a pre-recorded message meant to inspire and uplift, video services are the next best thing to being in the synagogue. It's especially effective when high holy days fall during the time COVID-19 restricts observance in person. Many congregants find a kind of peace in being able to see and hear the familiar voice of the rabbi from the pulpit, often reminding the faithful that there have always been trying times. Faith and ingenuity overcome many obstacles, and technology plays a massive role in making the world feel a little bit smaller.

Like television and movies, video-based worship can also be adapted to serve community members with disabilities. For those who cannot hear well and those who can't hear at all, transcription services are available. Similar to closed-captioning, it makes the world of video communication through the computer more accessible to those who might otherwise struggle. By enlisting the help of services like gotranscript.com, rabbis and synagogues worldwide have access to affordable, fast, and reliable transcription that continues to unite the faithful.

Making Mental Health A Priority

One of the greatest things congregants get from regular services at the synagogue is peace of mind. Some rabbis have begun to offer video and telephone-based chats in place of the pastoral care the synagogue would typically provide. For many, the pandemic means being at home with family members 24/7 and concerns over financial security. Others worry about children who live away from home or need marriage and relationship advice, all things a person's friendly local rabbi would help address in person.

Taking sessions to a virtual space allows continued support for a congregation and a reminder that faith and community still play an important role in daily life.

Some rabbis have even begun paying visits to local families - albeit from a distance - on Shabbat, simply to offer a comforting hello and reminder of togetherness in a time when the world is focusing on isolation. Most rabbis are acutely aware that, for a religion whose roots lie in the home, the community, the family, and the synagogue, this isolation is a deeply-felt one. Whatever can be done to approximate a sense of normalcy goes a long way.

Viewing Challenges As Opportunities

Many forward-thinking synagogues are using the pandemic as an opportunity to thrive creatively. Houses of worship are often notoriously reluctant to make changes, but the way synagogues worldwide have replaced technology to thrive and connect is inspiring. From producing hours of content you can view, ponder, and discuss throughout the week to keeping in touch with members of the community, isolation still helps bring the world closer. Many rabbis hope this is a lesson that will endure long after the challenges of the pandemic have passed.