Conservative leader Jacob Blumenthal looks at how his movement has adapted to COVID-19

Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal
“So many times, both for joy and for sadness, we wanted to reach out and give each other a hug,” says Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal. “And instead, we need to remain physically distant so that we can ensure everyone stays healthy.” (Photo by David Stuck)

In a pandemic, Conservative synagogues are all pretty much in the same boat, whether in Washington, D.C., or Washington State. That’s the view of the head of two of the movement’s major institutions, Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, of Gaithersburg.

On July 1, the 53-year-old chief executive of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly took on the additional role of CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

We asked Blumenthal how the movement is weathering the pandemic and what its plans are in the months ahead.

What challenges are Conservative congregations facing that other denominations are not?

I’m not sure that there’s anything unique among the different denominations. I will say that synagogues have a diverse set of programs, everything from early childhood to worship to adult education to lifecycle events. That means that the decisions that we make about which activities we might restore first become more complicated. So it’s not just about worship, it’s about all of the different ways that we support and connect community.

Do Conservative congregations in Greater Washington face any unique challenges?

I think we’re all in the same boat. I think one of the most difficult pieces is that so many aspects of public health have now become politicized. So, some people see the decisions we make around restoring physically proximate activities, wearing masks and other basic health measures, as making a political statement, rather than a statement about what we believe about following best health practices.

How do Conservative synagogues feel at this moment?

I think everyone is frustrated. I think we all miss each other very much. That so many times, both for joy and for sadness, we wanted to reach out and give each other a hug. And instead, we need to remain physically distant so that we can ensure everyone stays healthy. We’ve seen throughout the country that when cities or institutions restore physical proximity too quickly, it creates a huge resurgence in the virus. And our advice to all of our congregation has to proceed with caution.

How have Conservative congregations been handling the pandemic?

I’m very proud of the flexibility and creativity of all of our leadership. We have taken synagogue life and completely transformed it to meet the needs of the moment in congregation and after congregation. It’s really remarkable to see the creativity. We are creating new Jewish law to meet this moment, adapting Jewish tradition to meet the needs of our communities.

Has maintaining revenue been an issue for congregations?

We’re waiting to see. Government programs like the PPP program have been very helpful to synagogues. Many of our synagogues depend on certain kinds of program revenue, like early childhood centers and facility rentals and things like that. And that revenue is definitely down, as we can’t provide those services in person. And then we’re waiting to see — High Holidays are often the time when people think about their membership dues, when some congregations sell tickets to services, and we’re waiting to see how that translates to an online experience.

How do you think congregations will handle the High Holidays?

Well, I think that communities will find some ways to do things in person. So they may be able to create small group experiences outdoors. They bring the shofar to particular neighborhoods, and announce that folks can come out and gather in a physically distant way and hear the shofar in person. They might be able to create opportunities to do tasks with small groups and families. They will create materials for people to use at home to be able to celebrate the holiday. But, I think that many of the prayer experiences will probably be through some sort of virtual technology.

What are your thoughts on the use of technology in synagogue life?

Our communities and our rabbis are very diverse in terms of their approach to Jewish tradition and Jewish law. And what’s fascinating is to see how each community makes decisions about how they will use technology. And we support that diversity. We don’t believe there’s any one way to meet the needs of this moment. So we admire congregations that do not use technology on Shabbat and we admire congregations that have adapted technology in ways that are appropriate within Jewish law.

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