The High Holidays this year brought home to me the many ways in which Jewish ritual practice may be changing because of COVID-19, in ways that may not change back after the pandemic threat is no longer with us. Outdoor tents replaced indoor synagogues. Sukkot brought socially distanced family gatherings in people’s backyards in place of a communal sukkah. Friends in non-Orthodox denominations stayed home entirely, and watched services on Zoom. Combined, the likely result of these changes, both big and small, seem likely to further disintegrate the cohesiveness of non-Orthodox communities while widening the divide between different streams of American Judaism.
Although Orthodox services on Shabbat and holidays are never going Zoom, the pressures of COVID-19 have led to significant changes in the Orthodox world, including rabbinical sermons being available on YouTube or Zoom before Shabbat, and some services like the reading of Eicha (Lamentations) taking place on Zoom. Some Orthodox shuls are allowing vulnerable people to call into daily minyanim and even to say Kaddish via Zoom. This past spring, some Sephardic Orthodox rabbis briefly allowed Zoom participation at Seder—a violation of the yontef laws—out of concern for the mental health of those left alone for Seder.
Outside the Orthodox world, there had already been an ongoing movement toward audiovisual enhancements of religious services inside synagogues. One of the most visible results of COVID-19 has been the embrace of electronic davening in Conservative and Reform shuls, a change that can have huge implications for the practice of Judaism, and for possibilities for communication and fellowship between different traditions. Where a modern Orthodox relative might once have attended but not prayed at a family bar mitzvah held in a Conservative or Reform shul, that same relative would not make a similar accommodation by tuning into an electronic service on Shabbat. Similarly, if Conservative and Reform Jews no longer feel comfortable going to in-person services for health reasons, would they attend their own relatives’ Orthodox services on Shabbat if there was no remote Zoom option available?
Beyond the cross-denominational issues, full electronic services raise geographical issues as well. If a non-Orthodox Jew in Chicago likes the rabbi or the services at a Boston synagogue better than their local service, they can now just as easily go to an out-of-town service, divorcing their ritual observances from any physical Jewish community. The implications of these kinds of shifts are unclear. On the one hand, the synagogues with less charismatic rabbis or less creative programming could see drop-offs in membership and dues. On the other hand, this newfound flexibility could help Jewish communities form outside the major cities, as some Jews might wish to get away from densely populated urban areas without losing access to a Jewish community and services with which they are comfortable. Both possible developments seem likely to further attenuate the physical, in-person components of non-Orthodox forms of Jewish religious observance and communal existence.
At the same time, with Orthodoxy not allowing electronic alternatives at all for certain services, it may experience some challenges of its own. This year, many Orthodox synagogues in suburban settings built tents and offered outdoor minyanim, an alternative unavailable in many urban environments. Yet the outdoor tent minyanim still created potential exposures, so many Orthodox synagogues have been trimming the services and creating shorter davening in order to minimize the dangers. These excisions create a legitimate question of whether the parts of the service that have ended up on the cutting room floor are even necessary.
Why would Orthodox Jews want to return to two- to three-hour Shabbat or Holiday services when a one-hour or so service appears to be Halachically permissible? And if some synagogues maintain the shorter services post-COVID-19 and others do not, that dichotomy could exacerbate already existing splits between more consumer-friendly and traditional segments of Orthodoxy. Would a long-service synagogue continue to accept kashrut certifications or religious conversions from shorter-service synagogues? The conversion issue is already a flashpoint in the Orthodox world: COVID-19 accommodations could lead to that issue creating more permanent splits.
COVID-19 has also seemingly exacerbated inter- and intra-denominational splits over politics, as non-Orthodox synagogues have become increasingly comfortable overtly incorporating politics into services. While tikkun olam social service programs and other forms of political activism have long been integral components of Reform Jewish identity, the incorporation of politics into religious services may have reached a new level in 2020. As the elimination of physical presence and social life deprives congregants of familiar communal tethers, institutions reach for hot-button partisan political issues to keep people engaged—thus becoming evermore indistinguishable from the surrounding online landscape. Moving programming onto Zoom can also eliminate the potential for uncomfortable or even illuminating face-to-face contact with people who hold different views—making it easier for right-thinking majorities to excise or ignore disagreement and preserve the comfort of political bubbles.
With the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, many congregants at Reform shuls found their holiday defined by Ginsburg’s death. The most notable example of this merging of the political and the spiritual was the viral video of Rabbi Marc Katz and Cantor Meredith Greenberg of New York’s Temple Ner Tamid creating an entirely new Haftarah comprised of words from Justice Ginsburg. Greenberg sang the actual Haftarah blessing as if she were going to read the traditional portion from the first book of Samuel, but then instead Katz and Greenberg alternated in singing quotes from the late Justice Ginsburg using the traditional Haftarah cantillation. Some, including Ner Tamid congregant and Forward editor Jodi Rudoren, called it a “must watch.” Others, particularly in the Orthodox world, called it “blasphemous” and wondered if it was a Saturday Night Live skit.
That Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews disagree over politics is nothing new. We are legendarily the people of “two Jews, three opinions.” But the extent to which Reform Jews are choosing to openly advocate and integrate their political views into their religious services risks further alienating Orthodox Jews from their movement. It is probably not coincidental that the increasingly intensified political stances taken by different Jewish communities in the wake of the BLM protests, the intrareligious disagreements over Donald Trump, and the differing responses to Justice Ginsburg’s death are all taking place in the loneliness and isolation of COVID-19—which is decreasing the sense of community among all Jews, regardless of denomination.
Another development that is diminishing the sense of any cohesive “Jewish community” is the COVID-related rise of DIY Judaism. Anything that can be done on the individual level is preferred, even if it was once done at the synagogue. According to Azik Schwechter, vice president of sales and business development of Judaica.com, “People have to do their own ritual observances because they’re not able to go to the shuls.”
This year, Judaica.com ran out of shofars, which could reflect both an avoidance of synagogues entirely as well as a COVID-19-inspired aversion to sharing shofars mouth to mouth. And shofars are not the only item whose stocks are running low. According to Schwechter, more people are buying and presumably building sukkahs this year as well, suggesting that many Jews are doing for themselves what they once counted on synagogues to do for them. Both shofars and sukkahs can be expensive items, and once purchased, may be used regularly in the future.
COVID-19 has brought existing tensions between American Jewish communities to the fore while strengthening and accelerating forces that are putting pressure on all forms of Jewish communal life. It seems safe to predict that the American Jewish community that emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic will be more fractured and fractious than the community that existed before it. Whether it will still see itself as a single community is an open question.
Tevi Troy is a Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Institute. He is a former White House aide and the author of four books on the presidency, including, most recently, Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump.