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Jewish leaders: This year’s High Holidays need a new approach

We need to separate out our feelings of grief for how we had hoped this year would go, and shift our efforts towards the future
Illustrative. Jewish prayer book and shofar. (iStock)
Illustrative. Jewish prayer book and shofar. (iStock)

Jewish communal leaders have a lot of their shoulders right now. They are in the midst of trying to plan high holiday services, determining whether and how to open schools, recalculating budgets and staffing structures and so much more. At stake is nothing less than the physical well-being of our people and the future of Jewish communal life.

To make matters worse, leaders are operating under terrible conditions. COVID-19 is new and the particulars of how it is transmitted or how risky certain actions are still unsettled. The only advice that is being given with real certainty is to stay home and isolated if you want to be safe. Furthermore, guidance from public health officials and policies set by local governments are sometimes at odds with one another and health decisions have become politicized.

While our high holiday liturgy asks “Who will live, and who will die?” most Jewish communal professionals never imagined having such direct responsibility for these outcomes. The handbooks that served us well until February 2020 are no longer sufficient. None of us, not Jewish leaders, not anyone, signed up for this.

The teachers, mentors, and educational institutions that train Jewish leaders didn’t include in their curricula how to work with public health officials, evaluate reports of scientific studies, create virtual events with decent production values, or develop a budget without being able to reliably project income or expenses.

Many of the skills that brought us to where we are are no longer relevant and the tasks we thought we had prepared for are no longer our priorities. Traditional planning, usually essential for any institution’s functioning, is practically impossible. Now, organizations must plan for a range of potential scenarios which, by definition, means expending energy on possibilities that will never happen. And given the pace of change and the unpredictability of the virus’s spread, what ends up happening may not have been covered by any of the scenarios.

Relationship building, another focus of Jewish professional life, has also morphed dramatically. Previously, there was a rhythm and ritual for when we saw our constituents, for example at school drop-off and pickup, or after religious services; now there are few, if any, in-person events or interactions. And even when we can be in physical proximity, we are separated by at least six feet of distance and face coverings that make showing expression considerably more difficult. We aren’t yet well versed in showing concern over virtual platforms, and it remains to be seen whether, as a culture, we will be able to make that shift. It’s a lot better than nothing but it’s also just not the same.

Many professionals report that in switching to remote work, they are even busier than they used to be, and that the demands on their time have increased. Those who work for the community in which they live have even more difficulty than usual separating their work and home responsibilities. And, as for so many others, working a full time job while caring for children under lockdown feels – and is! – nearly impossible. And we do it while dealing with our own anxieties about the health of our loved ones, our communities and concern for the future. Even with the most understanding and compassionate communities, we are hardly primed for success.

When we encounter problems, both as organizations and as individuals, we often fall back on what has proven successful in the past, but this is no longer sufficient and may even lead us astray. Some changes, such as the increased use of online platforms or the rethinking of the traditional membership dues model were already in the works, but now are accelerated due to the pandemic. But whether we are facing new trends, or the acceleration of existing ones, looking backwards in the hope that things will go back to normal will not serve us well.

We need to separate out our feelings of grief for how we had hoped this year would go, and shift our efforts towards the future. We need to become the leaders our people need. We have experienced collective trauma, a trauma that is ongoing with little sign of reprieve. We need to work out what we don’t know and how to learn it. We need to work out what is needed and how to do it.

For some, we might need to shift our focus to providing for the basic needs of the increasing numbers of people who have felt the economic impact of this pandemic. Others will need to muster the creativity (and gain the technological skills) to build relationships and collaborate when we can’t be in the same room. All of us need to accept that planning for the future has changed beyond recognition and that we must achieve our goals in spite of this.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are meant to do heshbon hanefesh, accounting for where we fell short, and teshuvah, endeavoring to change. This change process may not come easily. On Yom Kippur, we read the book of Jonah. This reluctant prophet doesn’t believe in the possibility of change until God forces him to reconsider. Let us not wait until we are more than halfway through Yom Kippur to be reminded that change, though sometimes difficult to imagine, is indeed possible. In this tumultuous year, let’s make our process of heshbon hanefesh an honest reflection about how we need to grow as leaders to ensure that the months and years ahead contain sweetness and success, even if the future looks nothing like we had imagined.

About the Author
Rabbi Ashira Konigsburg is Chief Operating Officer of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative/Masorti rabbis.
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