A year after the covid pandemic began last March, we are beginning to imagine that it may finally be constrained, and that hard as it is to imagine now, sometime this summer we will be vaccinated and less fearful. Sometime this summer, we will have entered the new world of after.
So: What will the world of after look like?
Rabbi Steven Bayar, rabbi emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn and interim rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn (and Jewish studies teacher at the Golda Ochs Academy in West Orange), will offer his thoughts on that question in a three-part series on “The Pandemic and Politics: How are we changed? How are we the same?” on behalf of the West Morris chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women. (See below.)
One obvious change from the pandemic is the fact that his talks, part of a series of lunch-and-learns with local rabbis that NCJW has been running for years — takes place on Zoom rather than in the Morris County Library in Whippany. That’s a change “that has actually been very successful,” Melanie Levitan, one of the two coordinators of the series, said. “It enables more people to join. Some people prefer being in person. There’s definitely something to the discussion and conversation and sometimes humor that you just don’t get on Zoom.”
That’s exactly the sort of tradeoffs that the NCJW will have to consider when it plans next year’s series. And it’s the sort of question that Rabbi Bayar will address in his talks.
“There have been so many changes due to covid, in ritual and in community and in politics,” he said. “Will these changes become more permanent, or will they go the way of the pandemic?”
Rabbi Bayar thinks about these changes through the lens of the 2013 Pew Research survey of American Jewish life, and the trends it indicated of a “lessening of affiliation with brick-and-mortar institutions,” he said.
“These trends were exacerbated by the pandemic, and the closing of the brick-and-mortar institutions, which pushed people into a different definition of community, and a different dynamic of supporting Israel, and a different dynamic of basically everything,” he continued.
“The fascinating question is this: Are we in transition from where the Pew study had us to where the Pew study suggested the trends were going, or will there be a snapping back to older institutions?”
(The Pew Research Center is preparing a new report for release later this spring, designed to update the 2013 report. It will include data from this past pandemic year.)
At Temple Beth Sholom, in these not-yet-post-pandemic times, only 20 people can attend services in person. Don’t expect to drop in if the Shabbat morning spirit move you: You have to call ahead of time to say you’re coming. If you’re one of the lucky 20, you still have to wear a mask and socially distance. All this is based on the guidelines of the Center for Disease Control, and the specific guidance of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
Where some religious groups have pushed back at government guidelines for indoor gatherings, his congregants aren’t rushing to get back into the sanctuary.
“There are so many people who are so uncomfortable coming, who have decided they won’t come until everyone is vaccinated and basically the doors are opened,” he said.
The Conservative movement has permitted Zoom minyans under its interpretation of halacha, Jewish law. “There never would have been a suggestion before about counting people in a minyan over Zoom,” Rabbi Bayar said. “The question becomes, what do we do after the pandemic when we can completely open up the building?”
Sure, the building will be open, but what about “people who are shut in, or who might live five hundred miles away but grew up in this area and want to attend a minyan where they grew up? How do you go back and say, ‘You can’t do it, you have to be physically present?’ It’s a very powerful motive to keeping Zoom.
“According to Jewish law, you need 10 people to make a minyan — of whom three or four can be sleeping, as long as they’re physically present. Which do you think is the more authentic minyan: seven people who are awake and three sleeping people who are physically present, or seven people who are present in person and three people who are awake and participating on Zoom?
“It’s a delicious question. It forces us to take a look at the issues we have not tried to look at before. How can we not be inclusive when we have the technology to do so?”
Looking back over the past year, “What surprised me the most is that people actually did adjust,” Rabbi Bayar said. Take the restrictions on in-person funerals. “The first couple of months, people were just horrified. How can we mourn like this? By the end of the summer, this was the new normal. People were adapting.
“As a confirmed technological luddite, I have learned so much over the past year. You really can’t be active in a Jewish community right now without a knowledge of technology. It has to a great extent supplanted the traditional definition of a community.
“Most of us members of the clergy have been doing weddings over Zoom. I did one wedding where the bride and groom were in Los Angeles, the bride’s parents were in Chicago, the groom’s parents were in Maryland, and the witnesses were in New Jersey and New York.”
Because of Zoom, Rabbi Bayar has been able to bring in speakers from across the country for the class he teaches on tikkun olam at the upper school at GOA.
“Gisele Fetterman, wife of the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor, who runs a non-profit in Pennsylvania, was able to Zoom into the class and talk about what she does,” he said. “There’s no way I could have gotten her to come in person.”
But there are downsides to this for existing institutions.
“I was talking to a member of B’nai Israel this morning,” he said. “They told me they are no longer streaming into B’nai Israel for Shabbat services. They are streaming into the Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan. If they can stream anywhere they want to, why wouldn’t they go to a place that engages them in a way they like to be engaged? They’re still members of B’nai Israel, but they’ve become members of Park Avenue Synagogue as well. The dynamics are fascinating.”
Who: Rabbi Steven Bayar, rabbi emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn and interim rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn
What: Zoom talks on “The Pandemic and Politics: How are we changed? How are we the same?” presented by the West Morris section of the National Council of Jewish Women
When: Three Thursdays in April, at 12:30 p.m.
April 8: “The Pandemic, the Politics and the Middle East/Israel”
April 15: “The Pandemic, the Politics and the Jewish Community”
April 22: “The Pandemic, the Politics and Jewish Observance”
How to register and get Zoom link: email firstname.lastname@example.org.