The email invite to my son Gabriel to chant Haftarah on the morning of Yom Kippur was hard to decipher. Like many other shuls ours in Richmond is to operate a shift system over the Yamim Noraim so it was not immediately clear if the honour related to Option A at 8am or Option B at 11am. Both included an element of reading from the Torah.
This might not appear terribly complicated but it is one of the many adjustments to Jewish life in the seemingly never-ending pandemic. Israel is back behind barriers, Sydney (where we have close family) is in lockdown and in the UK people are being asked to set their own standards. Goldman Sachs in the US is mandating that returning staff are fully vaccinated. Here in the UK it is still a matter of choice.
Most synagogues have done a great job in keeping open by enforcing mask wearing, social distancing, sanitising and cutting back on social interaction. But no one should kid themselves that these changes will not have made an indelible mark on attitudes towards shul going.
In our relatively small but vibrant Thames-side community we have managed through the valiant efforts of Rabbi Meir Shindler (soon to decamp to Cockfosters & Southgate Synagogue) and our lay leaders to keep the Friday night, Shabbat and Yom Tov minyanim alive and kicking except when lockdown rules prevented it. We have even managed a couple of bar and bat mitzvot and a wedding in recent weeks. Even if the new normal is very different from the old there can be no pretence that it is life as usual.
Assembling the minyan can be tricky, particularly over the summer holidays. Success has often depended on a small group of almost ever-present regulars. The attitude of the broader community about coming back to shul is mixed. I spoke recently to one of elderly shul elders who for as long as I can remember would guard the gates of the Aron Kodesh during the Neilah service on Yom Kippur. He was doubtful about attendance in spite of vaccines and other precautionary measures. He is in his early eighties and his spouse, a regular attendee before Covid, sensibly did not want to take the risk.
A younger friend, who has served long, hard and attentively as an honorary officer, is saying Kaddish for his father this year. He has stopped coming to services, except when necessary, because without his father it’s not the same.
He also thinks a sparsely attended service populated by mask wearers is a sterile environment where it is hard to conjure up religiosity. He still wants to work on community strategy and building membership. Traditional prayer understandably is not doing it for him at present.
If Covid has taught communities anything it is that they are about much more than worship. They are about reaching out to the older or infirm members; they are about intellectual fulfilment achieved through Zoom events, podcasts and a short daily blast of mishnah through WhatsApp.
They have also exploded the myth that the traditional long, often drawn out services cannot be changed. The pandemic has demonstrated that they can be edited and focused on the most prescribed elements of prayer and Torah. Services can be completed in less than two hours. Shul-going for Selichot services, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can be spiritually uplifting without the frills.
One fears permanent scarring in communities who find the ease of online services, the avoidance of arduous walks (and dare one say parking difficulties) makes for an easier and safer life. The challenge as we approach the sound of the shofar and 5782 is going to be restoring anything like the status quo. If the rabbinate was hard-going before, it is going to be even more difficult now.
Happy new year to all our wonderful, disputatious and loyal readers.