The pandemic has been extremely difficult for clergy as congregational leaders.
We have had to rethink a lot of our preconceived notions and adapt to a significant new reality.
From the beginning, I said I believed that when this is all over, we will have experienced a paradigm shift. I am still not sure what form it will take. However, I have a clearer idea now than I did before.
During the first few months of the pandemic, I felt that we, as leaders, were in “shock.” We learned quickly how to navigate with Zoom, but really had very few new and creative ideas.
By the end of the summer in 2020, we were thinking in many out-of-the-box ways.
Jewish High Holy Days occur during the fall. Last summer, realizing that in-person services would not be possible, we were unsure how to manage them.
We decided to make videos of each of the five services and load them up to YouTube just prior to the scheduled time of the service.
For me, it was extremely strange to be giving a major sermon, in a sanctuary that can seat 1,000 people, with just me and a cameraman.
Learning how to look at the camera and not around the room was difficult. It was also difficult not to be able to feel the energy of the congregation.
We love our choir and so we recorded them singing outside, with masks on, alongside an electric piano. Ironically, a “chorus” of crickets or cicadas accompanied them!
By the fall, new ideas were becoming part of our congregational life.
We realized we could organize Jewish programs on a statewide level in a way that was inconceivable prior to the pandemic.
Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a hero within the Jewish community. When she died, we organized a statewide memorial service for her.
Although I was one of the behind-the-scenes organizers, we made sure the service was conducted primarily by women rabbis and cantors in our state. Amazingly, we had more than 2,500 devices viewing this service.
Another congregation organized a statewide service on the Friday night of Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. We had close to 1,500 people viewing this service in one way or another.
One of the most fun things we did was organize two, six-week adult education programs. These programs were two hours in duration and consisted of elective courses taught by six to eight rabbis.
It was an opportunity for Jews throughout the state to get to know and learn from rabbis who were not from their own congregations.
We also were able to enjoy two concerts of leading Jewish performers online. We did this by buying a “congregational ticket,” which enabled all in the congregation to access the concert.
This was significant because the cost of the concert was much less than it would have been had we tried to bring in the performer to our facility.
We did the same thing with “visiting” scholars. Often, the cost of a one-hour lecture was a tenth of what it would have normally been.
These were just some of our more creative thoughts.
We established a reopening task force composed of three doctors, two lawyers, two rabbis and several lay leaders. The process of reopening has been tedious.
One of the things that I like the most about our task force is that we have given the three doctors the right to cancel any program because of medical concerns right up to the scheduled time of the program itself.
Now as to the future.
I honestly believe that people were quite traumatized by the events of this past year. This has made people overly cautious in terms of reopening.
Often, I find myself sharing with people that during the previous administration, we urged people to “follow the science.” Now, with the new administration, we seem to be desiring to be stricter than national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state regulations.
In other words, it’s very difficult to follow the science even when the science says that it’s OK to open up.
I truly believe that we, as religious leaders, need to encourage our congregations to open up as soon as possible.
We have managed to have physically distanced services for vaccinated adults. We are having outdoor activities for families with children.
For us, as a medium-size congregation, the technological challenges have been tremendous.
There seems to be some sort of glitch in almost every service. We are trying to decide what sort of audio-visual investments we will need to make to have a more viable system for live streaming services.
I also need to mention that the conflict in the Middle East caused great stress within the Jewish community. Our inability to come together as a community in person during the conflict was a serious deficit.
Our lay folks need community – and by community, I mean something far more than Zoom.
We need in-person contact, even if masked and socially distanced. We need the joy of praying and learning together. We need to feel the presence of God within our midst as a community.
One of the two cornerstones on our building, which was finished in 2002, comes from the original Temple founded in 1907. The founders of the congregation put on this stone the words, “A holy community among the people of Israel.”
That needs to be our goal now. Only time will tell how much we will reopen and in what form. But I am confident that with the advice of our reopening task force, we will come closer to the goal of being together.
I am hopeful that when our High Holy Days come this year, we will be able to join together in love, brotherhood and sisterhood, to feel the presence of God within our “holy community among the people of Israel.”
Editor’s note: Throughout the summer, articles will be published from faith leaders reflecting on the pandemic ministry adjustments they enacted, looking ahead to the future or both. If you’d like to submit a column for consideration, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he served as rabbi from 1995 to 2021. Guttman is a dual citizen of the United States and Israel.