Why we cannot do it as we always have

Photo by Kay Kim / flickr No changes made.

By Rabbi Charles L. Arian

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged synagogues and rabbis to respond creatively. Services are not as easy as, “Add Zoom and Stir.” We maintain the closeness of our community, though, and are adapting to our new ways of conducting shul business.

One of the issues with the pandemic is that we have to change the way we do things. We can’t meet in our synagogues for services. Rabbis cannot counsel congregants in person. We cannot read from the Torah scroll.

Change is not always easy for Jews. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a recently retired professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College in New York, has said that in most synagogues, the phrase inscribed above the ark is either “Know before Whom you stand” or “For out of Zion shall go forth Torah.” But it should really say, “We have always done it this way.”


The coronavirus crisis has meant that almost no organization or individual has been able to do things the way they have always done them. When we were forced to close our doors, we quickly retooled and moved almost everything from in person to online.

We have not missed a minyan or a Shabbat or holiday service, and we have even added services (Havdalah and a well-received healing service) and social gatherings (Virtual Lunch and Virtual Coffee with the Rabbi.)

We have had our first Zoom bat mitzvah and a Zoom seder which was “attended” not only by current but even former members who have moved out of the area. I am still available for one-to-one counseling by phone or by Zoom.

here have been stumbling blocks along the way, however. Many of our congregants had technical difficulties, and I am now not only the rabbi but the IT department and the help desk. We had to adapt the service for online use, cutting out portions and shortening the service. And for the first time in my 27 years in the Conservative rabbinate, I authorized a violation of Conservative movement guidelines.

When it became clear that places of worship would have to temporarily close, the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards said that streaming Shabbat services was permissible if the livestream was running 24/7, activated by a timer or operated by a non-Jewish employee. On the viewer’s end, it had to be accessible without operating the computer on Shabbat, similar to leaving on the television to watch a ball game. We didn’t have the equipment or staff to comply with the guidance that was given at the time, so I authorized violating these guidelines.

When we first closed our building, it was assumed that it would be for two or three weeks and then things would go back to normal. After eight weeks, the end is not in sight as new COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to increase. It has also become clear that social distancing does not have an on/off switch. We will not go from “stay at home” orders to the status quo ante. Synagogues, churches and mosques will have to consider a hybrid model with service leaders and a small number of congregants attending in person and others online. As I have said to a number of people, while it’s too early to think about reopening, it’s not too early to start thinking about what things will look like when we do reopen.

I am fairly certain that if we did not offer streaming services on Shabbat and holidays we would not survive the lockdown. We are starting to figure out what our High Holiday services will look like with, most likely, only a few people in our sanctuary and most congregants watching from the safety of their homes. And when the lockdown is lifted, what will our Shabbat services look like? If the state says that we can reopen but no one over 70 or with certain health conditions should attend, is it ethical to have services which exclude some congregants? Should we continue to do Zoom services only? A hybrid model with some people at the synagogue and others online?

There are no easy answers to these questions. As I consider all the alternatives and discuss them with my congregation’s leaders and with other rabbis, it is clear that we will not be able to go back to what we had done before, and our new reality will be deeply uncomfortable for a lot of people — including, at times, me. But precisely 1,950 years ago our ancestors faced a similar crisis as the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the main form of worship that they had became impossible. They responded creatively with Torah study, acts of lovingkindness and prayer replacing the Temple service. We, too, will figure this out and emerge stronger than before.

Rabbi Charles L. Arian leads Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg.

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