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  • Writer's pictureDavid Billotti

Observations from the High Holidays

What we have learned:

Our community’s experience with High Holiday services was complex, evincing a range of emotions and responses. In all instances, it showed a deep commitment to Reform Jewish ritual, as well as a sincere wiliness to reinvent it together. After numerous conversations with clergy, staff, lay leaders and congregants – in partnership with the leadership of the CCAR and ACC, we are able to share some general findings.

Our clergy are tired. Many of them found not only the preparation exhausting, but the worship itself draining and not fulfilling in many of the ways it had been in the past. There was great loss in not being together in person. For many clergy, their passion is driven by (and fueled by) face to face relationship, by the endeavor of gathering communally.

And at the same time, many found the opportunity (and permission) to be creative, to partner in new ways with congregants and lay people, and to think about the texts of our liturgy in dynamic ways, very invigorating. They found the chance to connect one-on-one with many folks (via prayerbook pick up, gift bag drop-off, families doing solo recordings of honors or readings) deeply fulfilling and something missing in most years of Holy Day prep.

Their goals were as much to maintain the awe and the familiarity of the days, as they were to find new ways to connect hearts to our sacred texts and reach their members meaningfully. They pre-recorded and led live, they zoomed and live streamed to empty sanctuaries. Clergy felt deep integrity and value in the choices they and their teams made to meet the needs of their community.

At the conclusion of the Holy Days, we heard that members of our communities were moved as never before; despite the deep loss in not being physically present in sanctuaries, they felt connected, seen, linked to their community in new ways. We heard that personal outreach, hearing the stories and voices of their fellow members was deeply meaningful. We learned that people found being at home (comfortable to get up and down when needed, to sit with family, to answer questions of their kids who sat with them) a real gift, and created the environment for finding more meaning in the sacred rituals of the Holy Days.

How could this inform what’s next? What are the learnings we should be considering when thinking about communal prayer?

  • Intimate and personal connection to clergy, leaders, and each other matter

  • Worshiping from home provides accessibility, comfort and family connectivity for many

  • The themes of the Holy Days are rich, and deeply inspirational and meaningful – and there are many creative ways to bring the liturgy alive. This is true for Shabbat as well.

  • Clergy and lay leadership needed unrealistic amount of time to create meaning in this new modality;

  • These new modalities did not necessarily create new relationships from outside existing communities – but made existing relationships “stickier”.

So, how do we think about what’s next?

It is tempting to focus on the how we engage in hybrid (virtual and in-person) worship, or how we keep zoom engaging, or how we use technology. But when we start with why, and keep asking why, we might find greater clarity in making choices that are in line with individual communal needs.

Here are some questions you and your leadership can consider as we continue to be adaptive about what’s next.

What do we still need to know?

What do the leaders (clergy, professionals) need to answer about their own spiritual nourishment in this time? What questions do we have of our liturgy and our relationship to our text– how will we make choices about content as we consider the difference of virtual and in-person worship? Finally, perhaps we have more questions or unpacking and relationship building to do with our people in order to continue to learn, to adapt and move through what we all hope to experience in communal prayer.

Why is each modality important to us? Why does it matter?

This question can help us get clear about what each technology, modality, space and place provides our community (and what is lacking?). Focusing on the question in this way will keep us from the trap of trying to just do each one “right”, but when we understand what each prayer modality can provide and why, we will make better choices about how to do it.

How can we communicate our values and share them with the community?

Instead of communicating how our worship will be moving forward, if we lean into sharing our values, who we are and how we want to connect meaningfully through prayer, we will be better poised to share different styles and access points, and help our communities appreciate when they continue to change and evolve as each scenario of our future state unfolds – on a time-line which will always be unclear.

Why? And still, Why?

When we get into the planning, if we can continue to ask each other amongst our team – why? -- we will better drill down into the essence of what our particular community hopes to achieve in communal worship – virtual or in person.

An example:

: We should offer a virtual option even if we decide to gather in person soon.

: Why?

: Because people want to pray at home.

: Why? (the previous response isn’t yet a real answer to the first question)

: Members of our community who won’t feel comfortable gathering in person should still receive worship options.

: Why?

: They too want meaningful connections. It’s hard to be isolated, and we hear that our people feel hopeful when they are connected to each other. Virtual worship will do that.

: Why?

: It will allow people to connect to each other, and by knowing other people and being seen and known, perhaps they will feel more hopeful and see their Jewish life as a doorway to that and that’s ultimately the reason we have sacred community.

Now we have a better focus of the “why” of offering a virtual option – and this final why can then dictate the “how” of that virtual time. If this is your ultimate why (and you could keep breaking it down), then it might lead you to focus on small groups, or story-telling, or time for socializing and mixing in addition to liturgical content.

However, at the core of the questions about the “why” of worship, is capacity: Will it take as long to be intentional and prepare diverse and meaningful worship options, as the clergy/worship leaders continue to experience working this way? If yes, what will congregations need to stop in order to maintain this investment, or will new forms of collaboration take shape in order to share the load across congregations?

Providing virtual content for worship won’t go away even when we move toward more in person engagement. Many people will want to access some portion of their spiritual life from their home, from others’ homes, while traveling, or as a way to connect with distant family. They will stay home because they can find deep worship when they are under the weather, or when there are too many people in a given space, or want to join an experience they can’t get to physically or because of their own family circumstances.

Going forward, we can give people who want to connect to our Reform Jewish worship communities the choice to do so in the way that is best for them, without sacrificing the traditional meaning and true purpose of our rituals. The next steps are, why – and, what will it take?

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