Our shul, like many other shuls, is currently trying to find creative ways to accommodate as many people as possible for the Yamim Noraim, for the High Holidays. Do we have shortened minyanim in shul so that we can have multiple minyanim in the same space on the same day? Do we have off-site minyanim? Do we have backyard minyanim? I was speaking to a lay leader from another community who told me that she was concerned about not being able to provide enough seats for her shul’s membership which may result in many High Holiday backyard minyanim leading to a significant loss of income for the shul.
I just read an article entitled, “Is COVID-19 the death of the synagogue?” which suggests that the synagogue model will almost certainly collapse because many congregants are getting used to ad hoc prayer groups unconnected to their synagogues to which they belong, especially because for many, attending a synagogue is more about socializing than it is about prayer and if there is no kiddush and no socializing, then there is no reason to attend. The article states, “If synagogues hope to survive, they must answer three questions: Why should I join? Why should I give you my hard-earned money? What am I going to get in return?”
Similarly, some Yeshiva day schools may be facing similar questions. Even though teachers and Rabbis have been working just as hard if not harder zooming their classes from home, the end result is that the teachers are less connected to the students and some parents may say that if my Yeshiva day school is not opening their classes next year and we will have to zoom classes at least for some days of the week then I might as well save the money and send my child to public school.
While I understand that approach when it comes to supporting our shuls and schools, I think that it reflects a “customer” model which essentially asks what am I getting for my money from my shuls and schools and is what I am getting worth the money I’m paying. I don’t think that that is the ideal approach for shul members and yeshiva day school parents. I think that the ideal model is the stakeholder model. To my mind, shul members and yeshiva day school parents who adopt the stakeholder model ask at least two questions under these circumstances: (1) How can I best support my institution? (2) How can I best supplement my spiritual growth which may have been curtailed due to lost synagogue or Yeshiva day school opportunities because of COVID?
What does this look like in practice? First, school and shul communities should ensure that those who may have lost income at this time can still afford to send their children to schools and can still participate in all shul activities. I was heartened after speaking to executive directors from a few local Yeshiva day schools who are committed to continue educating children of parents who may have lost jobs during this time. Those, however, who have not been adversely affected financially from this pandemic should not consider withholding their support from the local Yeshiva day schools or shuls, even if at the end of the day they are receiving fewer services from these institutions because we as a nation have thrived over the years because of the strength of these communal institutions. At the same time, we need to be creative and discover new opportunities for these institutions to foster a sense of Jewish community and spiritual growth, even during this pandemic.
COVID is only the death of synagogues and Yeshiva day schools, for that matter, if people view these institutions as customers. But if these institutions can convey how shul and school communities have always been the bedrock of Jewish life in all circumstances and how shul members and Yeshiva day school parents are stakeholders, then it means that shuls and Yeshiva day schools are here to stay. We simply need to adapt and work harder at this time within these institutions to connect with God, our fellow Jews and ourselves. We’ve done it for thousands of years, and we will do it now, as well.