Rabbi Ira Youdovin: Welcome to the Jewish New Normal

Early in the current era of lock-downs, my friend and colleague Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin suggested that American Judaism was having a Yavneh moment. Yavneh, a small town not far from what is now Tel Aviv, was where the rabbis gathered in the late first century C.E after the Romans destroyed the Temple and expelled them from Jerusalem. Their immediate challenge was defining a format for Jewish worship now that temple sacrifice was no longer possible, which created a crisis that threatened to destroy the Jewish community. In their new Jewish expression, prayer, study and doing good deeds superseded slaughtering animals; and synagogues replaced the Jerusalem temple. Their vision re-shaped Judaism into a form that has endured for more than two millennia.

Rabbi Salkin’s point is that we’re undergoing a similar process today. Attendance at his synagogue’s on-line Shabbat services and, especially, its adult education classes was skyrocketing. Folks who had resisted driving to synagogue were enthusiastic about participating at home. This is also the case here at Congregation B’nai B’rith. Rabbi Cohen’s (in person) Shabbat morning Torah study had been attracting 40-50 people—a very impressive number for a congregation of its size and demographics. But via Zoom, weekly attendance approaches triple digits. In fact, this is a national phenomenon. Prof. Steven Windmueller, a leading expert in Jewish communal affairs, recently observed that more Jews are currently engaged in Jewish learning than at any other time in history.

It’s too early to assess the role cyberspace will have in post-pandemic Judaism. Right now, the primary issues facing synagogue leadership are when and how to return to what might be called the “old normal”. Happily, CBB has enlisted an outstanding group to make these decisions.

But once the immediate challenges are met, it will be time to consider what we’ve learned during the pandemic, and apply these lessons in building a “new normal”. These months have fostered a cornucopia of webinars featuring outstanding Jewish political leaders and scholars from around the world. On any given day, one can learn from Israeli journalists debating annexation in the morning; European leaders discussing anti-Semitism in the afternoon; and American scholars teaching Torah in the late afternoon and evening. Properly presented, these newly accessible opportunities need not compete with synagogue programming. To the contrary, they could enhance and expand it. For example, Prof. Daniel Matt, who taught us Kabbalah as a Reiger Scholar-in-Residence, offers an on-line course for folks interested in diving more deeply into the subject. There are others and the list is growing. And it’s exciting to contemplate a group of CBB members learning from a scholar’s Zoom presentation either at home or in the synagogue, and then participating in a discussion led by one of our own clergy. Distance learning enables this and every other congregation to have a global Beit Midrash.

The internet also enables the Jewish people to move closer to truly being a world-wide extended family. There’s no question that American Jews and Israelis are drifting apart, partly because we have little opportunity to talk with one another. Some years ago, CBB attempted to have an on-going Skype dialogue with students and faculty of the Leo Baeck School in Haifa, one of our Israel movement’s leading institutions. Despite heroic efforts by Ellen Raede, the project was defeated by the inadequate technology available at the time. Although Zoom is far from perfect, facilitating a conversation is much more feasible now.

I close with a personal note. I’ve participated in Rabbi Cohen’s Shabbat morning Torah class for more than a decade. And while his teaching and the class’ discussion is always rewarding, nothing comes close to matching the joy I’ve experienced every week since we went on-line, enabling my two grown children who live on the East Coast to join. Learning Torah with ones children who live three thousand miles away is an incredibly joyous experience made possible by the Yavneh moment that is reshaping Jewish life…hopefully, for the better.