Celebrating Your Jewish Community’s Reopening

July 12, 2021Jan Zauzmer

As Jews, we draw strength from togetherness.

So, at the outset of the pandemic, I and countless others pondered how best to maintain our Jewish ties during this period of physical distancing. For my part, I shared suggestions for a virtual seder, proposed an extra symbol on the Passover plate, and pitched a High Holidays idea.

Now, temple leaders are mapping out the first tentative steps toward reopening. But reopening means so much more than unlocking doors, turning on lights, and resuming routines. As we enter 5782, it means reconnecting with one another, reigniting the bonds of friendship, and reestablishing our affiliation.

Once it is safe to hold a large event — one that fully complies with public health recommendations in a post-pandemic era, whenever that may come to pass — what better way to refresh our social links than with a welcome-back celebration!

Needless to say, our rejoicing is tempered by the fact that we are grieving. Any festivities must acknowledge the widespread pain and deep hardship wrought by Covid-19. Indeed, synagogues are already offering services of loving remembrance and relevant social action programs.

As planners set about reconvening our sacred communities, they must also bear in mind that for many members, online greetings have felt warmer than in-person hugs. The value of welcoming must always reside at the heart of a house of worship, for a community is only as holy as its inclusivity.

When the time comes, here are some themes to get you started on creating your congregation’s special occasion:

Throw a Ma Tovu-themed tent event

Our very origins proclaim the centrality of the tent: “Mah Tovu — how goodly are your tents, oh Jacob, your dwelling places, oh Israel!” To welcome congregants back into the fold, gather under a tent for a morning study session on this prayer that extols big-tent hospitality. Then see spirits soar when you sing along to Danny Maseng’s magnificent “Mah Tovu” or other renditions of this beautiful liturgy.

Plan a homecoming party

To commemorate coming home to our spiritual home, decorate an outdoor area to look like a football field. Host a pep rally, a tailgate, and a dance. Crown everyone in attendance as homecoming royalty. Most importantly, chant cheers of prayerful gratitude to those who have helped us reach this season.

Frame this milestone of reuniting as a school reunion

Similarly, invite members to return to the place of Jewish learning amid pennants and pom-poms. Design a congregational yearbook. Show your shul spirit by parading around the parking lot to klezmer music.

Re-engage with an engagement party

Engaging anew is cause for celebration. Send out elegant invitations. Set up a registry featuring charitable donations instead of gifts. Adorn the space with hearts and “we said yes” banners. Break out the bubbly and propose a toast to the happy crowd. Serve a fancy tiered cake. Rekindle the flame with a candle-lighting ceremony.

Catch up with a community ketchup cookout

When the very act of gathering is reason to make merry, turn a simcha into a “simchaha.” The flock will relish this much-needed chance to come together for backyard food and laughter. Send in the clowns plus lots of balloons. But because today’s world is no picnic, serve up opportunities for tikkun olam as well.

No matter what theme you land on and how many creative twists you dream up, the hope and surely the prayer is that the joy of community lingers long after the party is over.

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In Reform congregations across North American, teams of clergy, staff, educators, and lay people have worked together to develop innovative ways to re-open, re-enter, and reimagine our Jewish community life. But the challenges that congregations face in strategically thinking through reopening are more than any one community should have to take on alone. The Reform Movement as a whole will continue to work to help congregational communities envision and plan for the future.