Chevre,

The High Holidays have passed us now, but they will remain with us in ways that are only beginning to become clear.

We – those who created and attended High Holiday services this year – have witnessed a revolution. More than that: we’ve participated in one.

I’ll come back to that in a bit. First, a little self-congratulations is in order.

ENTHUSIASTIC FEEDBACK

Back in April, when the High Holiday team decided that our services would be virtual and not in-person, we set ambitious goals by which to guide our decision-making. We knew that circumstances would force a lot of changes upon us, so we had to articulate both what we needed to preserve and how we would respond to the new technology.

We did this in a typically B’Chavana fashion. First, the team identified several goals that we thought important. Then we solicited from a representative sample of our membership their responses to those goals and suggestions for any more.

We arrived at five goals: connection, reflection, joy, engagement, and holiness.

Looking back now, I think we were crazy. Today, I say to myself: did we actually try to achieve those goals via a set of virtual services? Wouldn’t it have been – dayenu – enough just to shorten last year’s service, tape it, broadcast it and be done with it?

Not for us. And not just because we’re crazy. Rather, because we know the meaning of doing things b’chavana and that we were called, in this time of crisis, to be intentional about how we would serve you, our beloved community, in a way that would foster those things that we have provided every other year at this time.

We’re thrilled with what you told us about our success in bringing those things to you. Over thirty people responded to the survey in a mix of members and members of our extended holiday family. I think that represents more than half of the households that signed in. And here’s what you thought:

  • 28% were pleased, overall, and 72% were very pleased
  • No one responded that they felt disconnected. 84% felt connected or very connected
  • 88% commented that they felt provided with some or a lot of opportunity for reflection
  • While there were many comments that conveyed sadness that people felt, most of that pertained to what they bring to holiday services in general. Still, 91% reported feeling some or a lot of joy. My favorite comment is: “I enjoyed singing at the top of my lungs and not worrying about people hearing me.”
  • By far, most people were engaged intellectually and emotionally.
  • The furthest we were from success was in creating a sense of holiness. When I read the responses, this is really where I said to myself: “Did we really try to create a sense of holiness? That was a big reach!” When all was said and done, though, while 13% reported no sense of holiness and 9% a pervasive sense of holiness, 78% felt a sense of holiness sometimes or frequently. And that included one who commented “I’m not a believer in holiness anyway” and another “I’m not super spiritually inclined.”
  • We chose, early on, to use Zoom instead of other options – even though it was the most difficult path to follow. The driving reason was that it gave us the opportunity for interaction between Randi and I, on the one hand, and you, on the other, as well as between davveners themselves. 88% were happy that we did so.
  • Finally, we chose to engage as many people in as many direct ways as possible through the use of our video interviews, Torah readings and the like. 94% reported that it added well to the experience.

Of course, some liked the breakout rooms and wanted more time while other disliked them or thought they didn’t work. Some articulated that they were distracted by the use of the chat at times other than when I invited it. There was some other constructive, concrete feedback that we received and that we’ll hold onto in case, ugh!, we need to do this again.

A TURNING POINT IN HISTORY?

We, of course, were not alone in blazing this new trail. Nor was all of it exactly new ground for us: we’ve had beautiful videos and slide shows created by Randi and Gail and Caryn Putterman for years now.

But this might represent a turning point.

I recommended, recently, that you  “The Great Urban Comeback” in which the author, Derek Thompson, illustrates the way in which severe crises have, in the end, prompted great and positive changes. Written with our current pandemic in mind, he cites these examples among others:

  • the 1835 fire that torched Manhattan – but led to the construction of an underground water system that brought fresh water to every corner of the city. This helped firefighters, of course, but also brought clean water to citizens who had suffered one epidemic after another. The city’s population then exploded, helping it become the powerhouse that it is today.
  • The cholera epidemic of 1832 in Britain brought about the concept of “public health,” as the average mortality rate in communities of 100,000 or more fell to 26 years. In short, Edwin Chadwick’s investigation found that disease didn’t come from – ! – moral shortcomings but, rather, from the conditions that the modern city, with its awful/nonexistent sanitation system, had created. The benefits included a better scientific understanding of the sources of disease, as well as Board of Health, paved streets, clean water and sewage disposal.
  • Most familiar to us, the Chicago Fire of 1871 which burned almost all of the city to the ground. From that came the first skyscrapers, as architects were forced to experiment with steel, use a smaller footprint to serve more people. Likewise, those architects came together in friendship and in competition, pushing architectural development ahead rapidly.

So, what has all of this to do with B’Chavana and the High Holidays and our use of Zoom?

THE LARGER PICTURE: LIVING THROUGH A REVOLUTION

Recent writings by two of our most insightful observers and creators of Jewish worship and communities have drawn some rather large conclusions from what occurred just a couple of weeks ago. They both point to the idea that we are living through a revolution. And we might not even know it.

In “There’s No Going Back: What Rabbis Learned from the Extraordinary High Holidays of 2020,” Ron Wolfson cites many examples of the creative responses of synagogues and quotes rabbinic reflections on those responses. At the end, he draws the conclusion that “The pandemic has forever shifted the way synagogues reach their congregants and beyond their sanctuaries to a worldwide audience. And there is no going back — only forward.”

In a reflection from a rabbi and scholar who has been studying liturgy and promoting change for his entire career, my friend and teacher Rabbi Larry Hoffman posted his thoughts on Facebook. He notes that “our first serious foray into post-print culture” and argues that “Liturgy is always a product of technological competence and the culture that technology permits.” He gives examples from Jewish history, noting that our earliest services had no prayer books at all; no prayers had yet been written, so the service was entirely oral improvisation, much like jazz. He briefly describes how the invention of the printing press – and the fixity of words it introduced – changed that fluid service radically. Then, he describes what he has seen recently, what he calls “the post-print culture” and how congregations responded to that during the recent holidays. It’s a brief post and I strongly encourage you to read it for yourself.

WHERE TO FROM HERE?

If you’re still with me – still reading – you’ve taken in quite a lot. All of it, I think, is good news. Where we’ll go from here, though, is not exactly predictable.

What we know in B’Chavana are the principles that are most important to us: community; learning; growth; tradition; living intentionally. That’s the core of our future, just as it has been of our past. So, just as we did during the holidays, we’ll continue to use –  or ignore – technology in the service of those principles.

One benefit we’ve already realized: our members in other cities have reactivated themselves in the life of the congregation and we’ve already brought back an original member who had moved far away. Likewise, people who live here, but in the city or at some distance, can Zoom in and not have to battle traffic, etc – or skip it altogether. Our plan is to continue to Zoom everything we do, even after the pandemic has been controlled. What a boon to us!

Isn’t this an interesting time to be alive?!

L’shalom,
Marc

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