Worship in the Time of Pandemic: What We Have Learned

December 21, 2020Cantor Rosalie Will

For many of our clergy, navigating the Jewish holiday cycle virtually has been exhausting, especially for those whose passion for their calling is fueled by face-to-face relationships in communal gatherings. At the same time, they have been invigorated by the opportunity to partner with congregants, to think about liturgy in new and creative ways, and by positive responses to their efforts.

During the High Holidays, our Reform clergy faced the challenge of maintaining the sense of awe and continuity while at the same time finding new ways to create a meaningful worship experience as they livestreamed to empty sanctuaries. 

We were delighted that, despite not being physically present in sanctuaries, many congregants reported feeling even more visible and connected to the community than usual. We learned that people found being at home – comfortable to get up and down when needed, to sit with family, to answer questions of their kids who sat with them. This was a welcome gift that actually created an even more conducive environment for transmitting the sacred rituals meaningfully.

What insights can we draw from these unanticipated developments? Here are a few:

  • For many, worshiping from home provides accessibility, comfort, and family connectivity.
  • There are many creative ways to bring alive the liturgy of the High Holidays and Shabbat as well.
  • This new modality has made existing relationships between clergy and lay leaders “stickier.”

How do we think about what’s next? It is tempting to focus on the mechanics of how we engage in hybrid (virtual and in-person) worship, how to keep zoom interactions engaging, and how to maximize technology. But we might find greater clarity in asking why we should choose one way over another in meeting individual and communal needs.

Why is each modality important to us? Why does it matter?

Rather than falling into the trap of trying to do each modality “right,” this question asks how the presence or absence of any given technology, modality, or use of space promotes the community’s sacred intention.

Why communicate our values with the community?

If we lean into sharing our values, who we are, and how we want to connect meaningfully through prayer, we will be better positioned to adapt and evolve in the face of change.

Why? And why again?

In planning, questioning needs to be top of mind of leaders in order to better drill down into the essence of what the community hopes to achieve in communal worship – virtual or in person. 

Here’s how the conversation might go:

“We should offer a virtual option even if we are able to gather in person soon.”

“Why?”

“Because members of our community who are unable or feel uncomfortable gathering in person should still have worship options.” 

“Why?”

“Because having a meaningful connection makes people feel more hopeful. Isn’t that ultimately the reason we have sacred community?”

Many people we have learned want to access some portion of their spiritual life from their own homes – or from the homes of others, or while traveling, or while ill – as a way to connect with distant family, or for other reasons.

We are left with the question of capacity. What will it require of us to create both in-person and virtual worship services with the human and financial resources on hand? In reinventing Reform ritual and worship practices to meet the needs of all our members, might we need new forms of collaboration across congregations to share the load?

We have learned during the course of the pandemic that we can give people who want to connect to our Reform Jewish worship communities the choice to do so in the way that is best for them without sacrificing the traditional meaning and true purpose of our rituals. 

The next steps are to ask: Why? And what will it take?

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