The sounding of the shofar at the conclusion of weekday Elul morning services signals to us that Rosh Hashanah is drawing near. The Hebrew month of Elul (which began this year on Aug. 9) is thus supposed to encourage and stimulate introspection and heshbon nefesh (an accounting of the soul).
Thanks to COVID-19, many people have been engaging in heshbon nefesh for some time now. In disrupting the basic patterns of our lives, the corona virus allowed us to see what is truly important and essential. For some, the impact on their religious lives has been significant indeed.
Traditional synagogue life has been most affected, and it may never return to the way it was. People who had long been attending synagogue purely out of habit, who had found themselves completely unmoved spiritually, were suddenly freed.
I was in Newton, Massachusetts, on the last Shabbat of July to visit my wife’s family. A neighbor came by in the afternoon to visit, and I realized that I hadn’t seen him in synagogue that morning. I asked my sister-in-law about this, and she told me that the neighbor had never really enjoyed services and that after their synagogue was closed due to the pandemic, the neighbor had not returned.
Ostensibly, my sister-in-law’s explanation was really no explanation: On that Shabbat their synagogue was not closed but open; and yet once COVID-19 had provided this man with an acceptable “out,” he saw no reason to go back “in.”
I have my own story to tell here, and it concerns Friday night services.
I had always thought these services crucial for demarcating Sabbath time from profane time. I would leave my house at the end of weekday time, usher in the Sabbath in synagogue, and return to my home during Sabbath time.
I had thought that I needed to leave my home for this transition to take effect, and this notion was a source of comfort for me through many a service that was not spiritually uplifting.
I was wrong about this.
The pandemic taught me that I could sit in my own home and sing the songs of Kabbalat Shabbat with my wife, and that together we could welcome the Sabbath Queen in a pleasant and meaningful way.
I now feel more free to choose. In order to get me to leave my home on a Friday evening, my synagogue needs to provide me with a better experience than I can get at home. If the synagogue is going to be a place with less singing, more talking, and an irrelevant sermon to boot, then I can receive the Shabbat at home just fine.
All this has me wondering about the upcoming High Holidays. Due to COVID-19’s Delta variant, it’s almost certain that synagogues will offer live-streamed as well as in-person services.
Will the pandemic provide people the excuse they have been looking for to not attend High Holiday services? The answer of course is “yes.” The real question is: How many people are we talking about?
Our synagogue life has been disrupted by COVID-19 and synagogues have been put on notice. This is not a bad thing. The Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859) is reputed to have said: “The most dangerous thing of all is habit,” and he also said: “A person who prays today because they prayed yesterday—an evil one is better than they are.”
We will not be going to synagogue this Rosh Hashanah because we went last year. We have changed, and our synagogues have to change. And if we do tune in to services, whether in person or virtually, it will hopefully be because we sense the potential for spiritual growth and for transcendence. Shana Tova.
Teddy Weinberger is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, sarah jane ross, have five children.