In the first of our three-part Kesher series on Tomorrow Together, Rabbi Elliot Klayman explored how the Jewish community historically has dealt with world-shaking traumatic situations that directly affected the Jewish world. In this second part of our three-part series we will survey how the modern Messianic Jewish congregational movement has adapted to the world’s most recent challenge—the Covid-19 outbreak, which has dominated public awareness since March 2020. In our final installment, Dr. Stuart Dauermann will present creative options for successful Messianic Jewish communal formation in the future.
We begin this second installment with a look at the restrictions imposed in one state, Massachusetts, where a “moderate” response to the epidemic is evident, that is, a government-mandated response not as broad as in some states, but more rigorous than in others. Our goal is to catalogue the ramifications of this pandemic that synagogues all over the United States have had to adapt to in order to survive the crisis.
Our next concern will be to survey and analyze anecdotal evidence from a sample of congregational leaders and members to determine:
1. The strategies they developed in response to Covid;
2. The actual effects, both positive and negative, on community life, and;
3. Lessons learned for future communal development among our synagogues.
We will benefit from an informal survey of seven congregations which I visited during January through March 2021. A survey of the seven rabbis and seven lay attendees, one from each congregation, yielded some helpful data.
Next, we will consider some scholarly reflections on a key element in the survival strategy used by these sampled congregations: the use of Zoom and other electronic platforms to keep the flock together. We will seek to tease out possible unintended consequences of an electronics-dominated social environment. We want to craft a future strategy with our eyes wide open to both opportunities and potential pitfalls that this mode of delivery presents.
Finally, we will make some specific suggestions as to how congregations and smaller Messianic Jewish assemblies can thrive in the post-Covid world. We trust that distilling lessons from the past and present can propel Messianic Judaism forward in truly life-giving fashion.
Rules for Massachusetts Congregations
The guidelines as March 1, 2021 for Massachusetts begin as follows:
Safety Standards and Checklist: Places of Worship
Reopening Phase III mandatory safety standards, recommended best practices and a checklist for places of worship. EFFECTIVE: March 1, 2021
These sector specific COVID-19 safety standards for Places of Worship and Religious Services are issued to provide instructions to help protect against the spread of COVID-19 as the number of persons attending in-person services increases.
These standards are minimum requirements only and are not exclusive or exhaustive. The public health data and matrix for disease prevention upon which these guidelines are based can and does change frequently, and the operator of a Place of Worship is responsible for adhering to all local, state and federal requirements.
Violation of these standards may result in civil fines of up to $500 per violation; provided that each individual instance of non-compliance and each day of a continuing violation may be fined as a separate violation. Each person present over any capacity limit specified below may likewise be fined as a separate violation.
We are struck immediately by the consequences for violation of the standards set for religious gatherings—a $500 fine for each violation. This “comply or else” standard clearly has been a significant part of the motivational mix for Messianic Jewish synagogues to comply quickly, with little time for planning and reflection.
Regarding who would be permitted to worship on Shabbat and during holy days, we highlight some of the more stringent elements in the Massachusetts safety standards:
For indoor services, places of worship must monitor member entries and exits and limit occupancy at all times to the greater of the following:
- Buildings for which no permitted occupancy limitation is on record may allow 10 persons per 1,000 square feet of accessible space.
- In any case, no enclosed space (e.g. a single room, basement) within the building may exceed occupancy of 10 persons per 1,000 square feet.
These two standards alone limited Congregation Ruach Israel’s total number of Shabbat worshipers to twenty. Of course, no full-orbed congregation can long thrive with such dramatic limitations on the potential for the community to worship. So, in late May 2021 we began outdoor Shabbat services. At least the limitation of the number of people sitting in the parking lot is not part of the Massachusetts standards at present.
In summary, and for the purpose of communicating the dramatic alterations in normal synagogue life occasioned by Covid, we note just two more examples:
- A leader or celebrant engaged in conducting the service or making an address may remove his or her face covering while doing so, provided that he or she is able to maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from other persons present; installation of protective, Plexiglas or other transparent barriers is recommended for lecterns and other points of address.
- Places of worship are encouraged to modify communal rituals, like taking communion or passing of the peace, so as to limit contact with others. Consider distributing, where applicable, prepackaged communion or sacraments.
Readers will no doubt have varying degrees of disagreement or agreement with the methods mandated by the state government seeking to deal with Covid. But, we note that it is striking that government authorities have felt it necessary to even speak to how sacred rituals may be observed. This is new territory for Messianic Judaism and religious expression in general!
How Our Synagogues Have Coped
During a three-month sabbatical from my synagogue duties, I had the opportunity to visit seven American Messianic Jewish synagogues via Zoom or YouTube. I enjoyed many aspects of the services and, for the sake of this article, decided to create a survey to learn from each of the officiating rabbis about their congregation’s experiences in dealing with Covid. In addition to polling these rabbis, a portion of the survey was completed by a lay person, one from each of the synagogues. These congregations are located in Florida, California, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, and Connecticut. The goal was simply to round out the portrait of each by interviewing both the leader and a person at the receiving end of weekly services. Below is a distillation of several of the questions and answers which, as an aggregate, shed light on how our synagogues have coped, what worked, what did not, and what we can learn for the future. (A full tallying of questions and all responses will be available to the reader upon request). Far from being a scientifically conducted survey—the data sample is just too small—the anecdotal material still proves helpful in getting a snapshot of the recent moment in our Messianic Jewish experience.
After a series of questions identifying the congregations and nature of the larger Jewish communities in their areas, we drilled down to specifics regarding their responses to Covid.
Questions 5 and 6
5. Average attendance at Shabbat services prior to Covid
- 40 adults
- 50-60 adults
6. Average number of devices or viewers tuned into your virtual Shabbat service
As is usually the case, there was both the good news and the bad news to report. The big challenge for a number of congregations was that gross attendance at Shabbat services had diminished during Covid. The physical separation and creeping detachment among synagogue regulars had clearly taken their toll. The family discipline accompanying getting ready for services has been replaced with a situation in which there was very little social reinforcement for maintaining the attendance ritual. On Zoom, it is possible to wear an appropriate shirt while sitting in jammie bottoms and slippers. On camera, who would know? Or, a family could (and often did) shut off the computer camera and attend without showing their faces and home surroundings; or not really attend at all. In such cases communal cohesion inevitably takes a hit, and lower attendance may follow.
The sacred drama of the Shabbat morning service demands standing and bowing at certain points (the Amidah and the Aleinu for example). Without the in-person experience of worship, however, these essential elements of engagement with the Holy One are easily ignored. Over time, they lose their emotive power as they drift into the periphery of our experience as Jews engaging in avodah—the service of worship. The choreography of worship collapses onto the living room couch.
On the positive side some synagogues reported little diminishment in (virtual) attendance and some reported that the number of people viewing the service was actually higher than normal in-person attendance. For example, one synagogue reported pre-Covid average attendance at 150. During Covid, 200 cameras were counted on Zoom. Assuming that more than one person was present on at least half the devices, we can infer a dramatic increase in the number of total participants at some congregations.
Although our survey did not ask specifically about the locations of those tuning in, we can reasonably assume that people who live outside of driving range for weekly services added to the numbers. This is our experience in Boston where friends from multiple states including Maryland, Texas, Arizona, and California attend our weekly Zoom services.
In what ways does your online service seek to be different from your in-person service?
One of the most conspicuous changes from the normal synagogue pattern of worship were the length of online services and the resulting amount of liturgy. Given the suddenness of the Covid attack, decisions had to be made quickly as live services morphed into Zoom-style. Shortening of services which normally ran two or two-plus hours was a necessary accommodation to congregants’ capacities for engagement on-screen, the fact that children had no Shabbat school to attend, and likely other subtle dynamics of solitary worship at home.
The shortening of liturgical portions of course, presented a challenge for community leaders: “Which liturgical elements do we leave out?” For congregations with more casual attitudes toward traditional Jewish halachic standards, these decisions were largely aesthetic and logistical. For leaders of Messianic Jewish synagogues with a higher sense of the necessity that central features of the worship service be maintained, decisions as to what elements to jettison were more complicated.
Some of the specific Covid strategies listed were:
- While based on the Siddur we do not read from the sefer Torah but rather lein from a Chumash. We use a combination of musical montages, call and responses.
- So, right now we have a hybrid online and in service, but the service overall is shorter (from 2.25 hours pre covid to 1.5 hours) and we have a stream team. I do schmoozing with the Zoomers every third Shabbat where after service instead of schmoozing with the folks in person I’ll hop online and chat with them.
- Online differences: minimal use of instruments, abridged prayers, shorter devar Torah.
Questions 9 and 10 dealt with dramatic changes in other programming necessitated by Covid:
Before Covid, how did your congregation handle before/after service classes such as Bible studies, Shabbat school for all ages, and onegs?
- Parasha Adult class 9am before service Shabbat School classes mid-service Oneg on patio after service
- We had a Torah lesson for the kids 6-12 after the Torah readings and during the sermon. Talmud Torah was live on Shabbat after Oneg and mussar groups met online during the week.
- We had Shabbat School for kids under 12/13.
- Early morning Bible study before service Oneg after service Torah study on shabbat afternoon Kids classes during service
- We held a potluck oneg, and 2pm Bible studies and Hebrew School.
- We had an oneg after service, potluck style. Best oneg in town! We also had Hebrew classes in the afternoon every other Shabbat (two levels)
- Shabbat School during sermon portion Generally no adult classes Shabbat afternoon Light oneg normally; full luncheon for lifecycle events and some holidays
During the Covid shutdown, what changes did you make to before/after service classes?
- All classes on Zoom. . . . adult and shabbat school no oneg
- The kids’ torah lessons were moved online prior to the service. We divide those who wish to stay on into virtual tables for remote oneg. We have talmud torah at 2pm on Saturday afternoon.
- Teachers are doing Zoom classes during the week with the children.
- No oneg but we do everything else on Zoom
- We switched most of our after service classes to midweek since it was easier for people to go online than to come to the temple midweek.
- No oneg. All classes like afternoon Hebrew were switched to zoom.
- All classes online and not on Shabbat
Thanks to the miracle of connecting via computer, congregations found it relatively easy to conduct educational programs sans direct personal contact. However, one very important aspect of synagogue life had almost disappeared for the congregations meeting only online—the weekly Oneg Shabbat (Kiddush and connecting over a meal hosted at the synagogue). It is self-evident in both Torah and Besorah that breaking bread is a critical element in communal formation in Israel and among the Body of Messiah. Yet, this has largely disappeared during Covid. Secular authorities seeking to curb the spread of the virus showed little sympathy for synagogues and churches for which in-person fulfillment of rituals is essential. Hence, some Jewish and Christian communities took a stance of strong resistance to government intervention in the lives of worshipers. But, by and large, Messianic Jewish synagogues complied with government demands.
And congregational Passover seders? No tables to sit around. No elements to share. Virtual Seders in one sense saved the day. Many congregations had virtual seders such as the one our synagogue family attended. Creative graphics and songs led by folks at home compensated to a meaningful degree. But, the experience of sharing in the yearly re-enactment of deliverance, along with the common experience of tastes, smells, visual elements, and the communal dance of leaning on our left elbows, sending kids to find Eliahu the Prophet, and hunting the afikomen were diminished in the Zoom format.
Teaching children proved to be a challenge. Zoom fatigue plus the difficulty of keeping Messianic Jewish kids engaged in lessons without the presence of a real-life teacher demanded some creative re-imagining of the Shabbat school program. At our Congregation Ruach Israel in the Boston area, we opted for a ten-minute, pre-service puppet and rabbi, Mr. Rogers-style format. Marty the puppet and his friends Kermit the Frog and Alister the Wolf learned valuable lessons rooted in biblical/Jewish values from Rabbi Rich. Kids and adults in Zoom-land seemed to enjoy the shows. But, this was no replacement for a weekly Shabbat School hour. Virtual Hebrew school was moved to a weekday afternoon. This program seemed to work well, despite the inherent problems noted above.
An interesting conundrum arose concerning the use of the Torah scroll during the service. As already reported one respondent to our survey noted: “While based on the Siddur we do not read from the sefer Torah but rather lein from a chumash. We use a combination of musical montages, call and responses.”
Though not the uniform practice during Covid, among our Messianic Jewish synagogues, not reading from the Torah represents a huge departure from historic Jewish practice where a minyan (ten Jewish people present at the service) is required to fulfill the mitzvah of leining the weekly portions. Responding to necessary limitations imposed by Covid, the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council issued the following advice in March of 2020:
While the MJRC has never considered whether a minyan (a minimum prayer quorum of ten Jews) may be constituted by ten Jews communicating virtually rather than locally and has no formal statement to this effect, the general consensus among halachically-oriented Jews has been that a minyan requires physical presence in the same location. This means that during virtual meetings for prayer, the parts of the service that would normally require a minyan (Barekhu, Kaddish, reader’s repetition of the Amidah, Torah service) would not be said, even when a comparable number of people is present online. However, due to the extreme extenuating circumstances (sha’at hadehak) and the need for community, encouragement, and opportunities for Torah study and prayer, especially certain prayers such as Kaddish, the MJRC has determined that a minyan may be constituted virtually until the COVID–19 (Coronavirus) pandemic is no longer a threat. Care should be taken to guard the parts of the service that require a minyan ensuring that there are 10 people actually present to say the prayers and not simply logged into the meeting.
“A minyan may be constituted virtually until the COVID–19 (Coronavirus) pandemic is no longer a threat.” Messianic Jewish synagogues that place a high priority on maintaining the lines of traditional practice found this timely advice liberating. Congregations with less concern for historic precedent would naturally continue or discontinue particular practices based on more pragmatic considerations. The common thread, however, is that all synagogues were faced with an unprecedented situation in which adaptation had become the watchword.
Did your attendance at the Synagogue (virtual service) diminish during Covid?
Responses were evenly mixed between those who reported diminished attendance and those who did not, and I was surprised by this result. I had intuited that over time, we would have seen a sharper fall-off of even virtual attendance among worshipers. But at least in this small sampling of Messianic Jewish experience, such was not the case. Despite all the alone-time, without the natural reinforcement flowing from human connection (for example, a Shabbat dinner scene: “See you tomorrow”), attendance was reported to be fairly stable over the long period beginning in March 2020. Perhaps we can account for this stability because of the loneliness factor. Seeing friends on a screen is far better than being alone, and worshiping together, even in a truncated form is far better than no corporate time with God.
During Covid, has the giving/tithing to the congregation?
In a majority of responses (about two-thirds) giving remain stable, with about a quarter of respondents reporting a decrease. Some comments were posted:
- expenses also dropped so we came out in the positive.
- it remained stable throughout last year. We have seen a drop off during the first quarter though we suspect that the smaller need has caused congregants to shift their giving to needs such as food insecurity.
- went down for a while, but God is faithful and it has gone back up.
Marginalized religious movements like Messianic Judaism have at least one great advantage over more mainstream religious expressions: people join because they want to be part and are willing to pay the price for identifying, despite the costs. This reality may account in part for the fairly stable financial situation reported by respondents. Reduced operating expenses were noted by one respondent as another helpful factor.
But among non-Messianic synagogues generally there was anxiety, as noted in an article dated August 22, 2020:
The peak fundraising season for the Jewish community, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, is approaching in September. Religious leaders are keeping their fingers crossed.
Synagogues such as Temple Israel in Minneapolis are predicting a 30% decline in pledges. And those pledges typically account for about 30% of the temple’s budget, said Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman.
Temple Israel already had to furlough close to half of its roughly 60-person staff this summer, she said, but temple members have been incredibly generous during these hard times.
“Families are stepping forward like never before,” Zimmerman said.”
Likewise, one respondent to our survey commented on a perceived shift in giving in his Messianic Jewish congregation:
It (giving) remained stable throughout last year. We have seen a drop off during the first quarter though we suspect that the smaller need has caused congregants to shift their giving to needs such as food insecurity.
In surveying the situation, two things become clear: 1. There are some congregations in the United States which, because of their electronic media savvy, have benefited financially during Covid. 2. It is premature to draw any conclusions as to the outcome of Covid on the future financial stability of synagogues and churches.
What technological challenges and opportunities did you discover during the Covid situation?
Three-quarters of respondents reported a need for new equipment to adapt to virtual services, and nearly as many cited challenges with sanctuary logistics and with training people for new positions. Other issues mentioned were “people not knowing how to use Zoom, and “learning how to stream, how Zoom interacts with our sound board.”
Roughly two decades ago, it became obvious. Messianic Jewish synagogues needed to craft attractive and accessible websites in order to grow. During Covid, it became clear that purchasing significant amounts of new equipment to germinate online Shabbat and Holy Day services had become a survival necessity. Cameras, microphones, and mixers had to be secured. A Boston synagogue had to raise $30,000 for adequate equipment to produce a sanctuary experience as well as a separate set of equipment for summer outdoor services.
As Covid retreats, hopefully, to a distant, unpleasant memory, the purchase of equipment, training of lay people to operate it, and all the tsuris (trouble) of implementing digital worship will have a long-term positive effect. We will discuss the possibilities later in this article.
Did the leadership team struggle with any of the following?
No dominant pattern emerged, but individual respondents reported struggling with . . .
- Staying closed or opening up;
- Mask wearing as a requirement for attendance;
- Social distancing as a requirement;
- Permitting/not permitting dancing;
- Permitting/not permitting singing;
- Permitting/not permitting eating together;
- Taking temperatures.
How did your community adapt to any of the above tensions?
- People have been cooperative with masks and distance. Dance is permitted but only with the small dance team. No food until the County approves. We follow CDC and local guidelines.
- We are a small congregation and generally the adaptation has been done well.
- We did not meet in person until March 6, 2021. Since then we have had limited in person attendance and we require a mask and distancing and no food.
- We tried to be pastoral and have strong boundaries. If folks aren’t comfy wearing masks they are welcome to come online. Sometimes it’s tough enforcing the masks with certain visitors.
- No negative internal leadership struggles, though there have been some different opinions.
How do we account for the relative ease those surveyed found in implementing government-mandated restrictions within their synagogues? One factor may be that communities tend to pull together when emergencies hit—the kind of cooperation experienced during WW II when Americans displayed great solidarity due to the Nazi threat. The dire predictions about Covid endlessly communicated by mass media would certainly have contributed to the collective sense of a grave threat necessitating compliance and cooperation.
Not being able to meet in person could have contributed. Congregants were simply not with each other during Covid. Thus, differences of perspective on strategies for dealing with the situation could not be aired easily, nor fought about after services.
Generally, survey respondents reflected positively on how their communities responded to government rules. However, differences between congregants and synagogue leadership can be detected. As noted below, “some have struggled with their commitment to personal rights vs servanthood.” Here we detect elements of the national political divide Here are the rabbis’ reflections on the overall effect of the Covid experience on their congregation’s mood:
What did you learn about your community during this Covid crisis?
- Most are flexible and thankful that they have open services and follow local guidelines. Some folks decide not to show up either anti-masks or anti-vaccine
- During this time we have learned that we can change and adapt to the use of technology and the way that we imagined community. We do not use the term virtual anymore. We discovered that we have a number of distance members who are more involved in the community than some folks who are local.
- We can actually have a very worshipful experience online.
- That generally people are committed and adaptable and taking more initiative, however some have struggled with their commitment to personal rights vs servanthood.
- That we have many people who live far away who would like to be involved with the community if we have a platform for them to do so.
- That God is faithful during difficult times, that there are good things to come out of this (like streaming and zooming in speakers to preach from anywhere in the world). I learned how different people handle anxious times and it stretched me to try to make sure we are reaching out to folks that may feel isolated. The ones that are here and committed are rockstar volunteers keeping everything safe. Also, there are a wide variety of political beliefs that can affect how folks see what is going on and it’s important to pastorally attend to that personally and from the bima.
- General: vast majority stick together, are committed, are gracious even if they have differing opinions with leadership decisions. Also: most would probably want to reorganize in person quicker and with fewer restrictions than our elders have instituted. Also: the fully virtual format still managed to attract new people, including Jewish people exploring Messianic Judaism.
We now turn from the rabbis to the responses of lay members of the synagogues.
I feel spiritually engaged when attending virtual services.
Two-thirds of respondents reported feeling spiritually engaged, with most of the others offering various responses other than a simple “No.” The lay people asked to take the survey were chosen by the rabbi and, thus, would have represented the most motivated segment of the community. We would expect their answers to be upbeat. However, the answers to the two questions below about obstacles to worship help us form a more accurate picture of the effects of virtual services.
If yes to the above, what is the most engaging? If no to the above, what are some of the obstacles?
- Shema blessings section of the siddur, music (sometimes)
- The rabbi’s sermon/talk
- I was blessed to continue dance and worship in our livestream recording
- I am able to join with the music and worship even though it’s online.
- To me virtual is not new. Personally I have taken class and have done ministering via this method for a while. Virtual is not something that I allow to affect my worship. This is a choice I make, it doesn’t come naturally, I just want what is on the screen more than I want to miss out.
Obstacle or less Engaging
- Anytime a Hebrew prayer is repeated in English or vice versa, long readings during the Torah service, sometimes the message/drash,
- Being isolated from fellowship
- The most tremendous obstacle is one voice at a time. This required much creativity to get beyond radio silence.
- We have young kids. They are sometimes engaged with the service, especially during worship, but it is only for a few moments. Most of the time we have the service on in the background. One of us may be able to listen to the service but we have not been able to engage and be immersed in the whole service this whole time.
Most notable is the inability of one respondent’s children to stay involved. I have noticed this unfortunate situation among my own grandchildren. In a world of slick production values, fast action, and engaging visual images, it should be no surprise that young children, plopped on a couch at home with Mom and Dad, would find it very difficult to sit still and pay attention on Shabbat mornings.
“Being isolated from fellowship” was noted as a weakness to the virtual approach to synagogue life. We will explore the importance of actual human interaction in our electronically-dominated world later in the paper. For now, we just note that Zoom and other formats were a life-saver for Messianic Jewish synagogues during Covid, but imagining that virtual reality can replace flesh-and-blood connection would be a big mistake.
A probing question underscores this conclusion:
What are the biggest distractions you experience attending virtual services?
- There are so many. But there are also so many during in-person services. For virtual services the distractions for me are: people accidentally unmuting themselves at inappropriate times, seeing the faces of 40-50+ people on my computer screen while trying to focus on the service which is being led from the Sanctuary and the chat feature (probably the worst, in my opinion).
- Being at home it is hard to disconnect from all of the distractions at home, work, kids, chores, etc.
- Noises in my home, barking dog, and neighbor noise.
- Having small children, it’s different being in person with other children to be the example of what is appropriate. I feel they are more engaged in person watching the other children.
- My personal biggest distractions are my kids. I also think that it takes more effort to engage an audience when virtual (at least that is my experience being a teacher). If someone is more monotone or is not drawing the community in, it becomes easy to just have the service on in the background rather than experiencing the service.
- Technical issues (but they are not diminishing the product).
- Sometimes poor recording quality. No community present is a lonely experience.
As one respondent perceptively noted, being in person at synagogue has its own distractions. Modern kids don’t generally sit like little angels, glued to their siddurs and moving ever more deeply into the sacred drama of the Sinai experience. But the visual, auditory, and tactile experiences in in-person worship make for a different kind of reality than flat screen online worship.
Technical issues are mentioned. Over time, those operating computers and cameras naturally become more proficient. But internet access can be spotty. Equipment can fail and even short interruptions in the flow of teaching, preaching, and liturgy have a dampening effect on the entire experience.
Case Studies: Successful Experiences among the Messianic
Example #1 — High Holy Days in New England
The 2020 High Holy Day season was unique in history. Forced out of the synagogue buildings to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, UMJC congregations in New England turned to the Zoom format where multiple congregations could gather to fulfill, at least in limited fashion, the mitzvot associated with the season. Five congregations, Simchat Yisrael (West Haven, CT), Ruach Israel (Needham, MA), Shuvah Yisrael (West Hartford, CT), Beth Yeshua (Newton, MA), and Beth Messiah (Rockville, MD), participated, along with members of other scattered groups. The net result was in one respect unsatisfactory for the obvious reason that Jews are intended to meet together, from the sounding of the shofar to breaking the fast following the Ne’ilah service at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. However, we note the following positive dimensions reported by many who attended:
1. Whereas in most years rabbis and cantors must bear the responsibility for orchestrating the multiple services of the season, this year leaders from the participating synagogues shared the workload. The result was a level of excellence of execution as leaders only had to orchestrate one or two services, leaving the remainder to others on the joint leadership team.
2. Whereas most of our New England congregations serve a limited number of congregants and visitors each High Holy Day season, the number of participants was greatly increased. For example, at the Rosh HaShanah morning service we counted 160 cameras. Assuming 1.5 adults were present per camera, the total of online participants was 240 adults.
3. There was a palpable sense of excitement and joy as members of multiple congregations got to see each other’s faces on the computer screens. The message was powerful: “We Messianic Jews may represent a relatively small segment of the Jewish world…but there are still a lot of us!”
4. Whereas most years our congregations experience a limited pallet of speakers, in 2020 congregations we were able to hear multiple sermons by less familiar rabbinic voices.
Example #2 — The UMJC’s 2021 Shavuot celebration
Over 900 people registered for the all-night study Shavuot experience held on Sunday May 16, 2021. Orchestrated by UMJC Executive Director Monique Brumbach and her team, the evening was presented via Zoom. There was no charge, but attendees were asked to register online prior to the event. Why was this virtual event successful?
1. A number of well-qualified teachers from all over the United States, as well as Israel, the UK, and Brazil, came together in sequence for one-hour sessions. Obviously, this could not have happened had the event been strictly local.
2. The Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations raised its profile by hosting a significant event and secured valuable contact information from registrants.
3. Attendees could stay up all night studying or could call it quits as they desired. This made the event accessible to people who may not have had experience with the traditional all-night expectation.
Example #3 — Congregation Ruach Israel’s hybrid Zoom and outdoor services
Many congregations have developed a simultaneous online and in-person format. Since I am most familiar with our synagogue’s approach, I offer the following analysis:
Since early 2021 Senior Rabbi Nathan Joiner had talked about the vital importance of beginning to regather the community as local laws allowed and as quickly as possible. In the interest of avoiding conflicts arising from differing Covid sensibilities, on June 5th he drafted and the Board unanimously endorsed the letter that appears below.
We can report a victory here. Our ten-member board has members who strongly support government mandates (masks, vaccines, etc.) and those with equally strong convictions in the opposite direction (concerns about government abridgment of freedom, untested vaccines, etc.). Yet, the team came to hearty agreement on the wording of the letter. So, simultaneously with all the complexities of working with new equipment and accounting for sudden rain showers, we continued with Zoom access for people from other locales or those who remain nervous about the relaxed Covid regulations for outdoor meetings.
Subject: New COVID Guidelines
June 5, 2021
Dear Ruach Family,
I will let you in on a little secret—Raina and I have wanted to have outdoor services for years. We can’t help it. We love being in God’s creation. Even as I’m writing this letter, I’m sitting outside on my prayer swing in the backyard. After prayer, it becomes my home office during the summer months. Our first few outdoor services have been such a success—seeing so many of you for the first time in many months just brings me joy—one of the many blessings we can choose to see during this COVID-19 season.
More good news—there is light at the end of the tunnel! In light of the changing COVID landscape, Governor Baker has lifted all orders and social restrictions for indoor and outdoor gatherings like ours as of May 29th. This is great news! However, it also comes along with the responsibility for each of us to model higher levels of sensitivity and care for one another.
Our Ruach Board met this week and agreed that facemasks will be optional both for indoor and outdoor services beginning June 5th and following. This decision is made with prayer, thoughtfulness and much discussion, as we have weighed the many different needs and perspectives that we hold within our precious Ruach community. While we all are eager to see COVID in the rear-view mirror, we understand some people will feel more comfortable with this change than others. Of course, our virtual services will continue as they have been.
Here are a few guidelines that can help us navigate this important time in love and in the example of our Master Yeshua:
1. Ruach Israel is a “Judgment-Free Zone.” (Matthew 7:1–5)
We understand that wearing a facemask can be felt in deeply personal ways. Some people will choose to continue wearing facemasks while others may choose not to wear them. People’s personal decisions will depend on a number of different factors — like immunocompromising conditions, interaction with higher risk individuals, vaccination choices and personal convictions about masks, legalities and government intervention.
The key is that we should not make anyone feel judged, pressured or uncomfortable because of their choices to wear or not to wear a mask.
2. Consider other people’s needs and desires ahead of your own. (Philippians 2:3–5)
We must be sensitive to other people’s needs. If you choose not to wear a facemask, you might keep one handy to put on when speaking with someone whom you know would prefer it. If you don’t know, just ask. You might say, “Would you like me to wear a mask when we are talking?” Or “Is this distance okay with you or would you prefer me to take a step back?” “How would you like me to greet you? Are you up for a hug or would you prefer an elbow bump or maybe a virtual wave?”
Do not assume you know someone’s personal preference unless you’ve already had a brief conversation.
3. Voice your needs in love.
Ephesians 4:2 reminds us to live in community together with “complete humility, gentleness and patience, putting up with one another in love, and making every effort to keep the unity of the Ruach in the bond of peace.”
Humility not only requires that you put others ahead of yourself; it also requires that you have the confidence to share your needs and desires in gentleness and love. It is okay to ask for a bit more space or to decline a hug. You can say something like, “I would love to give you a hug, but I can’t do that yet. How about an air hug?” You can also gently put your hands up and wave to indicate that you’d like a bit more space. If you want to socially distance while sitting, place your bag or jackets on the seats next to you to give people an extra cue. Trust that people will not be offended.
4. Do not ask people whether or not they have been or intend to be vaccinated.
It is critical that we all understand that people’s medical choices are deeply personal and private matters that are made in consultation with their own medical doctors and in accordance with conscience. Some people in our community will be vaccinated and others will not be. We understand that this has the potential to be a highly emotional topic for some folks. While we don’t mind people talking about vaccines and related issues or even sharing about their own personal choices, it is best to refrain from putting people on the spot and asking them about whether they personally are vaccinated. Make your own decisions as to what your practice will be and allow others to make their own decisions. Come together in love.
Sometimes people feel that they need to know if someone is vaccinated to know how to approach them. However, there are so many different perspectives that there is no one approach that fits all. Instead of asking about someone’s vaccination status, ask more directly how they would like to be greeted. “How can I welcome you this Shabbat?” “Are you okay with this distance as we speak?”
I am confident that our community can rise to the challenge to love one another through this transition. In fact, I believe that this challenge presents an opportunity for us to grow together as a community in Messiah. The key is to put our relationships with each other first.
If you have any comments, questions or concerns please reach out to me. I’d love to talk!
Looking forward to being with you this Shabbat, weather permitting, outdoors!
In our Messiah’s service,
Example #4 — Sitting Shiva virtually
When Julie, the beloved sister of synagogue member Gary, died suddenly from advanced MS, Rabbi Nathan and I had to make a decision. How could we assist the family through the beginnings of the grieving process by enabling the family to sit shiva? With the help of the halachic guidance provided by the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (MJRC), we determined that due to Covid, we would allow shiva to be conducted virtually.
Roughly sixty cameras all over the United States tuned in. Most touching was the way relatives who had not seen each other in years came together to reconnect with one another, to weep, and to remember Julie. Though not a traditional feature of shiva, two guitarists from our synagogue sang appropriate songs to honor Julie, who, though living in Florida, had been a regular participant in our Shabbat virtual services. Again, in keeping with MJRC guidelines, a virtual minyan (plus) was present. We concluded the one-and one-half hour time with the Mourners’ Kaddish.
Electronic means made the experience possible. Long-lost cousins cried as they reconnected with family. Nothing more need be said.
What Will the Future Bring?
This is a unique period of history when making predictions seems especially difficult.
- Will people come back to services? Or, like major businesses which are exchanging the common workspace for at-home locations, will people decide to stay religious via their computers?
- What will finances look like for local synagogues if Messianic Judaism goes virtual?
- Can Messianic Judaism sustain itself long-term if the presence of the risen Messiah is experienced without local flesh-and-blood connection between him and his gathered people?
- What new or currently underused modalities of Messianic Jewish communal formation will present themselves in the years ahead?
Before making suggestions based on current trends to help answer these questions, we want to offer some analysis of dangers inherent in overdependence on electronic means of connecting with others. Covid has forced us into this world and clearly there have been benefits. Are there hidden traps which deserve our attention? The issue deserves our best attention since it is highly likely that religious institutions will continue to use Zoom, live-streaming, and other electronic tools to foster growth, especially distance participation.
As of the date of this writing, Covid is still with us, so we will not rely on the speculative conclusions as to what the post-Covid religious world will look like. Instead we will look at the work of MIT’s Sherry Turkle.
Dr. Turkle has made it her business to analyze society’s gravitation toward electronic substitutes over direct human connection. For example, she writes about the new possibilities of human connection being replaced by . . . robots! In the lab, robots are being created with computer generated human qualities which are and will be marketed as servants to our physical and even emotional needs:
I return to the question of harm. Dependence on a robot presents itself as risk free. But when one becomes accustomed to “companionship” without demands, life with people may seem overwhelming. Dependence on a person is risky—it makes us subject to rejection—but it also opens us to deeply knowing another. Robotic companionship may seem a sweet deal, but it consigns us to a closed world—the loveable as safe and made to measure.
The world of actual interaction with other people—not primarily in the temperature-controlled world of visual reality—is where we cultivate love. Zoom is relatively safe. We can simply shut off our cameras and listen. We can come to services in pajamas. We can choose to opt out of the time-honored, God-given sensual aspects of worship. But in this contrived environment, the challenges of growth into love inevitably will be truncated.
We admit that prior to Covid, the in-person experience of synagogue life has been far from free from this liability. Coming only to services once a week, staying long enough for Oneg Shabbat and then going home is hardly an ideal rhythm for avoiding Dr. Turkle’s “closed world.” But, over-reliance on Zoom will not help us cultivate an optimum Messianic Jewish communal experience. It’s just too safe and too easy. Real love requires significant contact with others.
Dr. Turkle sums up her observations about the challenges inherent in a web-driven social reality: “The ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy.”
This observation is just too important to ignore if Messianic Judaism is to prosper. We will need “the ties that bind” and not merely those that preoccupy. A personal example: For two years now and twice monthly, I lead a virtual havurah composed mostly of Jewish followers of the Messiah who attend mainstream synagogues regularly. Those who have remained and faithfully attended the study sessions, schmoozing, and prayer are those who earlier had formed real friendships with others in the group because they had known each other personally while attending Messianic synagogues or who had developed personal relationships in other ways. Those with weaker prior connections have not generally lasted in the group.
Without losing this important point, however, we are free to acknowledge real exceptions to Dr. Turkle’s general observation. This one is particularly touching: Following the morning Shabbat services at Congregation Ruach Israel (Needham, MA), Zoom attendees remain on line for a Virtual Oneg Shabbat. This happens when those present for the service enjoy lunch together.
I was surprised and gladdened to learn recently how much these virtual post service experiences meant for those who attended. Here is a sampling (emphases added):
During Covid I started to host a virtual oneg after Ruach Israel’s Shabbat morning services. I never anticipated it would become a community in Him bound together so tightly.
Originally, we would just discuss a topic I might pick which I usually connected to the week’s services, its sermon, or a current event of the week. I learned after a while, however, that there was no need to plan ahead regarding a topic. As our weeks together grew, we each began to share more about ourselves with each other. We became transparent and comfortable with our vulnerability. We looked forward to being together each Shabbat, to see how the week went, to share our joys, our deepest sorrows, too. These conversations inevitably led to praise and deeper worship as we were able to see Him in the lives of each of us, bolstering each other, gaining strength, love, and life through this virtual community.
Without the Zoom technology this part of our journeys would never have been possible. I am blessed to have been a part of it and I believe all of us in the group would agree.
Before the pandemic, my family primarily connected to spiritual community virtually through a telepresence robot and video conferencing because of my son’s complex medical needs. When the pandemic hit and our Messianic Jewish communities moved to virtual services,Torah studies, onegs, and book clubs, my family finally felt understood and included. What I did not anticipate was the tremendous connection we would feel with the members of our virtual oneg group. In this group, there are men and women, singles and married couples, old and young, and caregivers and people with health concerns. Our virtual oneg became a safe space to be vulnerable, to share our lives and our prayer requests, and to delve deep into the Word through meaningful discussion. Though many may safely return to meeting together in person, there are those who may need to continue to meet virtually for their mental or physical health. I hope that we as a movement will be able to promote virtual connections to support those who need it.
Ruach’s Virtual Oneg was one of my spiritual lifelines not only during the pandemic, but in a season when I was the primary caregiver (and unable to leave the house for services) for my husband who suffers from a catastrophic, degenerative illness. Moreover, this format allows us to meet virtually in each other’s homes more frequently and regularly and I believe bonds of fellowship, support and spiritual maturity have an opportunity to form, grow and reach a potential that is truly deep and unique.
Frankly, I was surprised to hear the passionate testimonies of those involved in Ruach’s Virtual Oneg Shabbat. Despite even hundreds of miles of separation, this weekly electronic forum is meeting deep needs. Surely all look forward to getting back to normal in-person Shabbat services. But testimonies point the way to future blessing. Under the right circumstances, deep connections among worshipers can occur.
What seem to be some of the prerequisites leading to success?
1. The leader of the Virtual Oneg is very skilled in eliciting others’ involvement.
2. The majority of those who participate have a history of personal connection with a majority of others who take part. The Virtual Oneg is largely an extension of these personal bonds. But, this warm, familiar context creates a safe place for those who may not initially know others well.
3. The intensity reported by participants is deepened by its regularity — every week after services.
Looking to the Future
Having investigated the Messianic Jewish congregational experience during Covid and the giant pitfall in imagining that healthy community can be achieved through electronic tools of community formation, we can now consider ways forward that can increase the likelihood of Messianic Judaism’s success. Essentially, the way forward will demand a hybrid approach to communal formation. Both effective use of Zoom and related platforms and deep commitment to in-person worship and study will win the day.
We will hear from rabbis in the mainstream Jewish world to reinforce our case. A November 2020 Jerusalem Post article poses the question in stark terms: “After COVID, is there a future for brick-and-mortar synagogues in the US?”
On the same day the Post reached out to Rabbi Steve Leder of the Koreatown-based Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the Reform congregation issued a press release stating it was merging with University Synagogue in West Los Angeles.
“A lot of people are predicting the diminished relevance of brick-and-mortar synagogues, but I am not at all convinced,” Leder said. Referencing the merger, he added, “In fact, we are doubling down on brick and mortar by merging a smaller congregation into ours so that we will soon have three campuses rather than two.”
And while Leder called virtual Judaism “amazing,” particularly during the pandemic, he noted that it has limitations, “especially when it comes to replicating the feeling of being together, praying together, singing together with our arms around each other and catching up at the oneg or kiddush,” referring to traditional gatherings held after prayers featuring food and drinks.
A theological imperative for Messianic Jews deepens the need for the feeling of being together, as vital as this is. As Jewish members of the Body of Messiah—the New Testament rubric expressing the profound spiritual unity shared among his followers, Jewish or gentile—being in one another’s presence is profoundly significant. This reality raises the stakes as we contemplate the future of Messianic Jewish communal formation.
Back to the Jerusalem Post article:
Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz of the Conservative synagogue Adat Shalom in West Los Angeles noted that the pandemic had allowed the synagogue to expand its offerings to congregants.
Adapting to the times, he added, has always been part of the Jewish tradition.
“Long ago, we used to only offer sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. Now we all pray facing Jerusalem in our home communities around the world. That change took time, and we adapted to create communities of our own. So we must adapt to what works, and we must make the case for congregants to make the effort to return when it’s safe. . . . No matter what, nothing will ever replace the in-person experience of community, of sitting next to neighbors, friends and loved ones.”
We appreciate the rabbi’s insight into the nature of Jewish communal formation historically. Circumstances change and new approaches become necessary. Facing Jerusalem while in Warsaw or Brooklyn, we could only imagine being present in the holy city, the nexus of our corporate life. We could only be there in the Temple courts in our mind’s eye. So, today adapting to the virtual reality of Zoom has come to us as yet another way in which the vicissitudes of Jewish life have shaped our corporate responses.
Conservative Rabbi Kligfield noted that he is grateful to Zoom but, “I miss people, and hugs, and chats about things important and unimportant over bowls of cholent. And Zoom can provide none of that.”
The Orthodox community, demonstrating its commitment to get people back to shul after the Covid crisis, is offering financial incentives to synagogues that come up with creative ideas to help people move from Zoom to synagogue room:
Now, as more congregants have been vaccinated and individual state regulations on indoor public gatherings have eased, the Orthodox Union is launching a new $100,000 challenge grant designed to support congregations that create innovative programs and services to invigorate synagogues and stimulate congregants to re-embrace synagogue life.
Called “Back to Shul,” grants of up to $5,000 will be awarded to the programs selected, administered through the OU’s Department of Synagogue Initiatives.
The Orthodox Union’s creative initiative to rebuild after Covid can provide inspiration to the Messianic Jewish community. Leaders of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) might consider a similar strategy for soliciting practical strategies for overcoming the inertia that may follow the trauma of Covid. Fear of being with other people, combined with the comfort and ease of living-room religion, will surely have to be overcome if our synagogues are to recover fully.
The Uncertainty—and the Hope—of It All
Whatever our concrete plans for communal expression, the post-Covid world remains at this moment a mystery. We simply don’t know whether people will return to services at brick-and-mortar synagogues having tasted the ease of rolling out of bed, wearing sweats, and Zooming in. We do not know whether the disease will completely abate. Some are predicting a less-than- happy reality here either because vaccines will not work as well as hoped or because new strains will proliferate. Further, we don’t know the economic impact of massive business failures throughout the world on local synagogues.
Of course, uncertainty does not have to immobilize the Messianic Jewish community’s taking a proactive stance regarding its desired future. We are not secularists who can only look horizontally for answers. We believe in a covenant-keeping God who loves Israel and all humanity. We are confused and even a bit dazed by the Covid experience, but his good aims for us will ultimately be realized. The lesson for us then is quite simple—Betach B’shem! Trust in the Lord as we navigate the uncharted waters of return to congregational life. Despite the uncertainties, we must envision and plan.
The hopeful lessons gleaned during Covid can suggest a general trajectory for the future of Messianic Jewish communal formation. Dr. Stuart Dauermann will explore possible contours of Messianic Jewish practice post-Covid in the third of these articles.
We base these particular strategies on the hoped-for outcomes envisioned by Messianic Jewish and mainstream rabbis, the experience of people in the pews, the cautions offered by scholars such as Shirley Turkle and the creative genius manifested through the millennia of the Jewish community when faced with seemingly impossible challenges.
1. The highest goal should be ongoing, personal contact among members and friends of our congregations. Electronic means should never be seen as ideal. Why? Because at its root, biblically-rooted religion demands the full-bodied involvement of its adherents. A truncated, two-dimensional visual experience of others can support, but can never replace, this incarnational reality.
2. Zoom meetings and other online platforms are likely here to stay and can be a great enhancement in serving the Messianic Jewish world. Educational programs reaching hundreds or thousands, virtual Hebrew School study for kids living in different locales, music teams from multiple congregations can, with the help of newly available software, combine their talents and perform virtually. Shabbat and holy day services can reach Messianic Jewish families in out-of-the-way places. Such people need never feel they are alone in experiencing at least some living Messianic Jewish reality. In Jewish terms the operative expression is Ahavat Yisrael—proper self-love within the Jewish community.
3. Financial uncertainty may plague the Western world until radical changes in the structure of financial systems are reformed. Thus, it would seem wise to think of smaller, less expensive synagogues and home congregations as an important means of sustaining Messianic Jewish community long term. This option will be explored thoroughly by Dr. Dauermann in the final article of this Kesher series
4. Online training for Messianic Jewish rabbis and lay leaders will likely continue to accompany or may even eclipse traditional forms of higher theological education.
Building wisely with these four guideposts in mind can ensure a positive trajectory for emerging Messianic Judaism. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future the entire community of Western faith traditions will be able to join with the Joseph of old as he reflected on the calamities which had faced his newly-reconciled family. He reassured his brothers, “You meant evil against me. But God used it for good” (Gen 50:20).
Covid has surely been a global nightmare. May God use the experience to inspire the Messianic Jewish world to great benefit for future blessing among Am Yisrael.
Dr. Richard C. Nichol is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Ruach Israel in Needham, Massachusetts, and is currently the president of the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute (MJTI). Rabbi Nichol received a BA in music from Ithaca College, Master of Divinity from Biblical Theological Seminary, Doctor of Ministry in Homiletics from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, and Master of Jewish Studies from Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts. He received smicha (ordination) from the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations in 1986. Dr. Nichol and his wife, Susan, live in Needham and have four grown children and eight grandchildren.
2 The full list of requirements for houses of worship in Massachusetts can be located at https://www.mass.gov/info-details/safety-standards-and-checklist-places-of-worship.
3 Some questions in the survey are not cited because they are not relevant to this article.
5 Sherry Turkle. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 66.
6 Turkle, Alone Together, 280.