Misfortune may have fully emptied our sanctuaries, but the pandemic was merely an acceleration of a trend. The 2021 Pew Study of American Jews demonstrated that even before the pandemic, 52% of American Jews reported attending synagogue “seldom or never.” Without a synagogue, most do not have a relationship with a good rabbi.
Yet more than half of these “non-attenders” reported “other ways of expressing their Jewishness” through, as Pew confirmed, “holidays, food choices, cultural connections or life milestones.”
Of course, there are thriving synagogues where clergy and congregants express a dynamic American Judaism. But the title “rabbi” no longer guarantees pews full of Jews. Largely trained and paid to serve synagogues, rabbis thereby don’t reach the Jewish majority.
Our clergy are an under leveraged resource in connecting Jews and Judaism—and can do so with the incentive and tools. COVID-19 has proven our rabbis are ready to radically change in order to reach our people where they are.
For example, the rabbi of a mid size congregation launched a listening campaign, training a core of passionate volunteers to reach out and build deep connections to others within and outside the synagogue. With online meetings, they engaged more of their community than they had through regular synagogue programs and built Jewishly inspired, collaborative projects to overcome near-universal feelings of isolation.
Another rabbi in an urban congregation turned their neighborhood into a “Living Torah Museum Walking Tour” for Simchat Torah and beyond. They placed 54 laminated posters on members’ buildings and gates around their neighborhoods. Each poster had artwork representing one of the 54 weekly Torah portions, plus a QR code with links to the portion. Members, neighbors and curious passers-by all engaged with Torah in new ways.
These rabbis nearly universally said they could prioritize these innovative projects only because their regular synagogue services and programming were on hold.
The majority of clergy earn their salaries from institutions supported by and focused on their members. Necessarily, the bulk of their attention goes to serving the needs of those paying dues: sanctuary worship, b’nai mitzvah, synagogue-based Jewish education, social action and chesed initiatives. Already working to capacity, they have little time or resources to reach those who may never appreciate these synagogue functions. Only a small subset of clergy can take the financial risk to pursue their innovative ideas as entrepreneurs. And who pays the rabbi as she builds a spiritual startup?
Our entire community must radically invest in the reinvention of the rabbinate so that 1,500 rabbis, not 150, learn and practice these methods. Even as we rightly look forward to the reopening of our sanctuaries, now is the time to ask how your synagogue, JCC and federation are prioritizing and dedicating time and money to rabbinic innovation.
Training and supporting our clergy to lead successfully beyond the walls of the synagogue has exponential return on investment. COVID-19 has proven that they have the vision and capability to do so with the right training and support. Now is the moment to ensure that our clergy have the training, incentives, support and resources to harness this positive momentum born out of our misfortune.
Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.