When a synagogue has no walls
Way back in time, when the Temple fell, we weren’t just scattered; we also lost our very centralized form of worship, and the need for a priesthood, and Judaism changed radically in response.
Thousands of years later, COVID has forced us from our physical synagogues, and how we worship, celebrate, and observe has had to change radically. We have been dispersed to our homes, even as our buildings still stand. How does our community change, absent a physical space? When COVID is a memory, what will have changed? How will our sense of community change? What will be the role of our buildings and physical institutions?
Most synagogues have switched to virtual or streaming services and programs in response to the pandemic. Many had already been streaming their services to some extent for the past while. After the first flurry of hurried responses that moved only what seemed essential online, many of our institutions have become more far-reaching and intentional about what they are offering remotely.
I know when I talk to friends, family, and co-members of my temple (Temple Har Zion in Thornhill), it seems that everyone has some things they sorely miss, but others that they hope will continue virtually in some form, once COVID isn’t the main consideration in deciding how things should be done.
There are some synagogues that were never rooted in one place. Some are deliberately “without walls” – their programs are scattered among different places within one area. Some are virtual-only; there is never a time when members are together physically, and everything happens online.
I think that as we think about what the Institutional part of our Judaism will look like in the future, these congregations’ experiences can be informative.
I reached out to the rabbis of some of these shuls and asked them three questions:
What challenges does your form of shul solve for your members?
How do you build community with your model? and
What are your challenges as a synagogue?
Some of the rabbis who responded also generously answered some of my other questions as well in follow-up, adding even more insight.
Most congregations start out without a building of their own, and rent premises, which becomes their main location – sometimes with other locations for religious school. The two congregations I want to tell you about today are deliberately without a “main location” as a matter of choice.
I had an email conversation with one of the Rabbi Schachar Orenstein, one of the team of three clergy, along with Rabbi Sherril Gilbert and Cantor Heather Batchelor, of Montreal Open Shul (https://www.montrealopenshul.org/), which is (unsurprisingly) based in the Montreal area. I also had a phone conversation with Rabbi Howard Cove of Beiteinu (https://www.beiteinu.org/ ), which is based in the Philadelphia area.
In orientation, Montreal Open Shul identifies as post-denominational, and their rabbis are Renewal rabbis. Rabbi Cove was ordained in the Reconstructionist movement. Both are “synagogues without walls” – they were meeting in various places within their region pre-pandemic, but the locations were fluid, and there is no physical building. According to their website, in normal times, Montreal Open Shul’s events take place in yoga studios, cafés, synagogues, homes, event venues and other religiously unconventional spaces all around the city.
Beiteinu’s religious school takes place in various members’ basements or living rooms, and worship and study take place in different locations, mostly free, but rented as needed for large gatherings. This means, not only do the rabbis travel from place to place, but so do prayer books, Torahs, and anything else that that is needed.
What challenges does your type of shul solve for your members?
Rabbi Shachar/Montreal Shul: Montreal Open Shul’s website reflects a focus on “contemplative and experiential Jewish practice, life cycle rituals, learning, community building, and social change”, with a strong focus on music, particularly around Shabbat. They welcome the unaffiliated, or those looking to supplement their practice. Rabbi Shachar Orenstein says, “Our ‘unexpected locations’ model has allowed us to offer programming to communities in many geographical areas, rather than just one.“ He notes that not being tied to a physical space made the transition to online relatively easy.
Rabbi Cove/Beiteinu: Rabbi Cove told me that he had imagined Beiteinu as attracting mainly older people and empty nesters, who might find it hard to travel to more distant synagogues, but in reality,
there is a larger membership of families with children looking for education. Most of the families are “on the fringe of Jewish commitment”, but they want their children to have a Jewish education. He sees the goal of Beiteinu as creating “as many points of connection between the individual and Judaism”. Many of the members are people who were unhappy with their synagogue for one reason or another, and those looking for a lower cost and time commitment for education.
How do you create community with your model of synagogue?
From Montreal Open Shul’s website, it’s clear that building community through food and interaction is a strong focus. Under normal circumstances, most programs involve pot-luck meals, musical
programs invite participants to bring their instruments, and several sessions incorporate yoga.
During these days of isolation and distance, Rabbi Shachar told me they make their online sessions “as interactive as possible, recognizing that people would like to be seen and heard."
Rabbi Cove feels that Beiteinu is more like a series of chavurot: parents of children in the same class spend time together during lessons. The Wednesday morning Torah Study group is different from the Thursday morning Minyan group. Erev Shabbat service attendance varies by location. Creating a sense of belonging is a challenge, especially given that many families leave after B’Nai Mitzvah. where some congregations start as a community and then hire a rabbi, membership in Beiteinu is largely driven by what he describes as “entrepreneurial rabbi work.”
What are your challenges as a synagogue?
Both congregations mentioned logistics and finances as challenges. Having a flexible venue means that Torahs’ arks, siddurim, and any other materials have to be brought to and from each location. "
Rabbi Shachar mentioned Zoom fatigue in these times as a challenge, as well as having to adjust funding models as a result of the pandemic. Rabbi Cove, as a rabbi with 25 years’ experience, talked about how it would be nice to bring on a younger rabbi to help out, but financially, this is out of the question, although he does have volunteers who help with some of the teaching.
Neither rabbi mentioned it, but I imagine that making arrangements with the different spaces is also a challenge not faced by bricks-and-mortar synagogues.
From different perspectives, both also talked about how operating without a space brought their legitimacy into question for some. Rabbi Cove spoke about how he officiates at life cycle events that are outside the norms followed by the majority of the Philadelphia Jewish congregations – whether it be interfaith weddings, or preparing a child for B’Nai Mitzvah beginning at age 11, rather than the expect age of 9. “I know that they may make other decisions and they’d do it Jewishly. If I shut the door on them, I may be shutting the door on other generations.”
At Montreal Open Shul, the rabbi says, “Many people kept and keep asking ‘where is your synagogue?’ They expect a brick and mortar place…It can seem as though we are illegitimate since we don’t rent or own a physical space.”
With so many synagogues turning to a virtual space and discovering ways to thrive outside a building, I asked both rabbis whether they thought that their form of shul would become the dominant form of Jewish community. Rabbi Cove in Philadelphia was of the opinion that “most people like having bricks and mortars”, and his style of membership would continue to be one choice among many – and probably not the dominant one. At Montreal Open Shul, the answer was the opposite: “We have been called to serve far flung communities that we could not have reached before. There will not be a return to the past, but rather, we are in the midst of spirally upwards to a new creative future.” That said, they are looking forward to being together in person in the future, including a plan for some socially distanced gathering around the High Holidays (in addition the online programming that they plan).
It’s interesting to note that both these congregations were clergy-created and are very much clergy-driven and oriented to reaching Jews where they are. They are also very labour-intensive. Will the Jewish community as a whole move away from being oriented to one location, once things settle into
a less isolating and calmer time? And if it does, will it continue to gather in small spaces, as in these models, or might it become predominantly virtual and not rooted in geography at all?
Next blog, I’ll be exploring some completely virtual synagogues – some of which have been that way for many years.