Shul Challenges: Engaging Young Adults After COVID-19

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by R. Aton Holzer, MD

There has been a considerable amount of discussion online regarding the return to normalcy in Jewish communal life, and in particular, to the shul, after the pandemic has finally concluded. Anecdotally, rabbis have particularly noted the absence of young families in synagogue participation during this time, even to the extent allowed, and in activities that have gone online. Is there a hope to recapture and revive the American synagogue, and its all-important millennial membership, in the post-pandemic era? Permit me to share some observations, with the hope of sparking further discussion.

The effects of the pandemic both created new challenges for the recruitment of young families to synagogue life, and exacerbated some that already existed. I count at least seven: 

1. The nature of the generation involved. Millennials are noted, among other things, to demand to be involved, to be active and participatory in their investment and contributions (see e.g., here and here , etc. ).

2. The practice itself. There exists a lack of good textual anchors in our sources for a personal obligation of tefillah be-tzibbur. To the extent that we accept Prof. Haym Soloveitchik’s thesis regarding the contemporary text-based reorientation of Orthodox observance, in this department tefillah be-tzibbur comes up severely wanting. Berakhot 8a calls one who desists from participation in communal prayer a ‘bad neighbor’. In the age of COVID-19 and keeping distant, it is good to be a ‘bad neighbor’; (In the longer term, it is difficult to see how a nation, or any kind of group identity, can survive without neighborliness — a sense of collective belonging of the subgroups within it — and the reinstatement of individuals’ participation in communal obligations will be an important challenge for general society to address. Communitarian thinkers present some useful ways of conceptualizing the benefits of belonging in a time of increasing, and even enforced, atomization.)

3. To some extent, there had been younger congregants who, in the past, had felt bound to come to shul due to “mimesis;” a year of enforced absence from the shul has surely disrupted this. The internal push that some felt due to tradition that had been imprinted by parents and grandparents has been overridden and likely extinguished by a Halakhic obligation to not congregate.

4. In an age of gender parity in the workplace and beyond, there can be no expectation that one’s wife will watch the kids at home so that her husband can go do ‘more important things’ — this sort of attitude is an anachronism in the twenty-first century. In this regard, comprehensive childcare services at the shul are indispensable, although of course necessary but not sufficient, as childcare does not address the other issues enumerated here.

5. In an age in which professionals are constantly wedded to the workplace due to technology, Shabbat is the one island in time that is fully available for parent-child bonding; yet COVID-19 triage of attendees have rendered shul an adult-only (and in some places, adult-men-only) affair. People with young children have found fulfillment in private prayer with their children at home. Child engagement/parent-child tefillah programming will thus also be essential.

6. COVID-19 hygienic considerations have eliminated the shul kiddush; the sense of mutual commitment that arises subconsciously from the commensality in such shared food experiences is not a trivial matter — it can be foundational in establishing or re-establishing a genuine sense of community. I imagine that shuls that didn’t have kiddushim or meals prior to the pandemic might consider one or more (se’udat hoda’ah?) — albeit with hygienic conditions that make participants comfortable — when the doors finally open.

7. COVID-19 has prevented rabbis and synagogue clergy from hosting young families for Jewish events and Shabbat meals. Rabbis who open their homes and family lives to congregants significantly increase the latters’ “buy-in” both to the Rabbi and, by extension, the shul which is the platform for his work and teaching. Synagogues would be wise to furnish Rabbanim with the additional means that are required (or hire supplemental clergy) to host and feed young families for Shabbat and holiday meals, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic when community-building will be the need of the hour.

The end of the pandemic will undoubtedly reveal a transformed social world. Here’s hoping that clergy and lay leadership have the foresight that will enable the traditional structures of Jewish sociality to survive and adapt to new communal conditions — and the insight to shape them.

About Aton Holzer

Rabbi Dr. Aton Holzer is Director of the Mohs Surgery Clinic in the Department of Dermatology, Sourasky Medical Center, Tel-Aviv, Israel, and is an assistant editor of the recent Rabbinical Council of America’s prayerbook Siddur Avodat Ha-lev.

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