Peering into A Post-Pandemic Jewish Community

The worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely yet to come. The pain of the present can be paralyzing. The demands of professional and volunteer leaders of synagogues and Jewish institutions are already massive. It requires tremendous energy to dream about gathering together again in person. But now is the time for leaders to prepare for that time. Planning now will help Jewish institutions refine what they have learned about Jewish life for the next six months and enable them to shape the best possible future for their constituents. Budget shortfalls are a part of the new Jewish normal, and the Jewish community will need to reconstitute itself with fewer dollars and volunteers. Yet, organizations can compensate for those losses by making smart strategic choices now.

To be competitive in a post-pandemic world, rabbis, Jewish professional, and volunteer leaders should be planning for:

  • “Phygital” – phygital is a retail term that means customers can try a product or experience digitally and, if they like it, complete the transaction at a physical location. It also means that if people have a good experience at a physical location, they are more likely to see what is available online. Phygital requires high quality, easy to access online and onsite quality. With a phygital marketing mindset, digital and physical experiences mutually interact to create positive consumer experiences. Translated for the Jewish community, it means that individuals can experience what a synagogue or Jewish organization has to offer before committing.
  • Mobile – Some synagogues and institutions still have clumsy mobile sites. If an organization’s mobile site isn’t easy to navigate, it will lose out to the numerous alternatives that “consumers” have learned exist.
  • Streaming – Streaming life cycle events, services, and Jewish learning: people will expect that option to continue, and streaming will be the new normal post-pandemic. Zoom brings people into the room, but it has limits to engaging them in the experience. Pivoting to Zoom so rapidly was remarkable. How can synagogues and organizations now push beyond having constituents feel like watching a show on Hulu or Netflix? When organizations first created an online presence, they generally cut and pasted print documents onto their websites. Over time, they realized that a new medium required creativity and adaptation, and now is the time to think about how to enhance engagement significantly during streamed experiences.
  • Intergenerational – Older individuals frequently lamented the absence of meaningful connections with younger people, but younger people often did not share those same feelings. Because of intergenerational experiences over zoom, younger individuals have discovered how enriching it can be to have age-diverse interactions. The next stage is to invite young and old to co-create the experiences they want and invite younger people to design these experiences.
  • Global – in speaking with friends and clients, I’ve heard how much they have taken advantage of online experiences in Israel and other Jewish communities worldwide. A few synagogues and Jewish institutions recognized their ability to be local and global before the pandemic. Smart institutions will capitalize on that awareness and increase their presence and potential financial support by aiming for a global Jewish audience.

Let’s assume that your organization’s budget decreases by 30%. How can you fund these opportunities? You can share the costs of digital upgrades and training by collaborating with other synagogues and institutions. A federation, board of rabbis, or community leaders and executives could create a joint services organization (which some communities have) and hire several staff members for each institutions’ digital experiences. They can improve the purchasing power of equipment by working together. Now is an opportune time to be serious about mergers and co-locating several organizations under one roof.

Individually, organizations have several available strategies. They can tap into their best assets – volunteers who have expertise in these areas. The pandemic has decreased the digital divide across generations. Congregations and organizations have an opportunity to continue planning more intentionally for intergenerational experiences that have strengthened relationships and energized young and old. And why not pivot and become both local and global by offering your synagogue’s or organization’s very best to all? Your organization will be helping during a time of spiritual and educational need, and, in appreciation, you’ll gain ambassadors who will share a good word and may become financial supporters. These strategies require time and a reallocation of resources that already exist.

Synagogue and organizational leaders have demonstrated remarkable resilience and innovation in flipping almost overnight from being primarily physical to almost exclusively digital. They have more capacity to innovate and pivot to new circumstances for which then they and others give themselves credit. Often, Jewish leaders are criticized for their inability to innovate, and some Jewish leaders have privately told me that sometimes they have self-doubts. I hope that they and their critics will be more confident in their abilities to address a future that will require maximum agility and innovation, for we have seen that they are up to the task!

This is the first in a series of posts on the future of Jewish life.

About the Author
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is a national thought leader, organizational consultant and author on the American Jewish community with a specialty in synagogue life. He is President & CEO of the Herring Consulting Network.
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