COVID-19: Rabbis with empty shuls

I’m not sure if he had intended it as an innocent comment, a witticism or a dig at the rabbi, but it was enough to send any rabbi into an anxiety tailspin. “So, Rov (that’s what South Africans endearingly call their rabbis), will this year’s abridged Rosh Hashanah service become the ‘New Normal’”.

To contextualise: South Africa’s lockdown regulations currently limit the duration of all religious services to no more than two hours. Nobody can squeeze a full Rosh Hashanah morning into that amount of time. Plus, when you factor in that people will have to wear masks and remain in their seats for the entire service, most rabbis realise that two hours is probably too long.

Local rabbis have become highly creative. Some have advised their congregants to pray the first half at home, while others leave out some of the “piyyutim” to speed things up. A number of us have split the services into longer and shorter segments, including a “Power Hour” option, where you pretty much hear the Shofar and pray the bare essentials. That’s the one this fellow was excited for. He really likes the prospect of one hour, in-and-out. I’m pretty sure that he imagines that a truncated service will also means a shorter sermon.

The whole thing scares us rabbis.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are our Prime Time. We get to perform to capacity crowds. We refine our High Holiday sermons over months. We track trends to find relevant messages and we collect anecdotes and jokes for a homerun delivery. We want people to laugh, to cry and to be inspired. We appreciate it when they congratulate us on our brilliance. We feel the effort worthwhile when even one additional person attends Shul more often following our discourse.

This year is looking altogether different. Over the past six months, we rabbis have had to counsel many community members who have lost businesses, had to sit shiva alone or have scuttled their grand bar-bat mitzvah plans in favour of a Zoom. The High Holiday season has now brought that pain home to us. Our core business has been upended by the virus. We won’t pack the pews this Yom Tov. Our greatest fans, those dear Yiddishe mamas who always sit up front to catch our every word, will spend the holidays at home.

So, rabbis, do we fret or flex? We could enter Rosh Hashanah depressed over the empty seats and the lost opportunity for that once-a-year inspiration that we believe touches so many. We could worry that our members will so enjoy their home-based experience that they’ll never return to Shul. It’s a rabbi’s worst nightmare- the prospect of the end of the synagogue as we know it.

Instead, rabbis have reached out to their constituents, to bring Yom Tov to them at a time when we cannot bring them to Yom Tov. This year, we have been challenged to relinquish our dream of building a religious enterprise and to focus instead on individuals. Ironically, this is, after all, our core responsibility. Perhaps our focus on filling seats and growing membership had distracted us from what we are really here to do.

Covid-19 has forced us to focus on honey-jar gifts and “How to pray at home” guides, rather than our annual Yizkor tear-jerker. Typically, a twenty-minute bombshell would touch all 500 congregants at once. This year, it has taken us hours to try to reach each member with a meaningful message ahead of the New Year.

One of our Shul’s leadership team summed it up perfectly, “People have no idea just how much effort and energy has gone into what will be our smallest High Holiday crowd in years.”

Well if our goal is Shul attendance ROI, then we are sorely in the red. Our job, however, is to touch people- no matter what it takes. If it means I get them to Shul, great for me. If it means I have to reach out and bring meaning into their home, great for Judaism.

Moses was the first rabbi ever. Our sages describe how his earliest credentials were as a shepherd, who was willing to chase that one stray sheep that wouldn’t stick with the flock. A rabbi isn’t a career- or a synagogue builder. He is a shepherd of souls. Our focus should not be the satisfaction of a brimming place of worship. Our role is to touch our fellow Jews- as they are, where they are.

Rabbis have sermonized plenty about how Covid-19 should remind people to reassess their values and priorities. It has now reminded we who sermonize too. The reduced crowds at Shul are humbling. The need to reach out to people in their own space is redefining.

The prophet says that, in the Messianic Age, G-d will lead every single Jew by the hand, back home to Israel. This Yom Tov feels like a test-run, as every rabbi and rebbetzin has to reach out and find a way to bring their constituents into the High Holiday experience.

Is this the “New Normal”? Well, if that means reduced Shul crowds and a shorter service, I certainly hope not. If it means rabbis reclaiming the Mosaic role of caring for the individual, that would be wonderful.

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler together with his wife, Naomi and their eight children, runs Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group.
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