Judaism in the COVID era: What will be lost, gained and changed?


This Q&A is adapted from one of eight mainstage conversations held at Z3 2020: Visions of a Shared Future, a virtual conference produced by The Z3 Project and the Oshman Family JCC of Palo Alto, California, aimed at reimagining Diaspora-Israel relations. 

Judaism has always been a social faith, centered on communal activity. However, the demands of social distancing and repeated lockdowns prompted Jews from across the religious spectrum to experiment with new models of engagement. This discussion on how the coronavirus altered ways in which Jews worship both collectively and personally has been condensed and lightly edited. It is adapted from a discussion featuring Dr. Micah Goodman, a noted author (“The Wondering Jew”) and research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem; Sarah Hurwitz, President Barack Obama’s former speechwriter; and journalist Abigail Pogrebin (“Stars of David”).

Pogrebin: Because of the pandemic, we’re not allowed to kind of do our Jewish thing these days, which basically means being together like we’ve all been raised, in the Jewish tumult of family, of ritual, of celebration. And that’s been taken away. Can you describe what the challenge is right now?

Goodman: I think people … of a digital age have a hard time spending time with themselves. It’s literally hard, harder for people, probably more than ever, just to sit down and to stare and to be bored, and to generate your own thoughts without any external stimulation. That’s very hard. There’s a second thing that’s very hard for people today, to communicate deeply with other people. Judaism is very good at building connections between people, families, communities, powerful relationships, relationships [that are] non-instrumental. I really hope that now that we’re yearning for the real thing, for real connection, for Jewish connection from real family, for spending, for real community, for spending real time eye to eye, face to face, with each other, for finally stop[ping] communicating through technology. When we do it, let’s not be interrupted by technology. Maybe we will learn that when this is over will be spent time spending time with each other, we’ll shutting off our smartphones. Maybe we adapt to an ancient Jewish idea of using Shabbat as a day of a digital sabbath, of a day where it’s just us and no distractions.


Hurwitz: I think this has obviously been a time where we’ve had to seriously rethink a lot of our rituals, you know, how do we do these things when we can’t actually be in the same room? Right now, obviously, in the era of COVID, we’re really rethinking how we gather, how we celebrate our holidays, our lifecycle rituals, everything from inviting people over to Shabbat to doing things on Zoom. I mean, it’s a big change. That should be a really wrenching, powerful, transformative experience. And instead, it’s just kind of a little bit boring. And so you know, when even that is taken away from us, and we kind of try to move that online, I think it actually puts into kind of sharp relief what it means when we have rituals that we don’t really understand; when we kind of vaguely feel like cultural Jews, but don’t really know what that means. What I’m hoping is that this will spark a real yearning for Jewish literacy, some real understanding of the profound moral and ethical and spiritual and cultural lessons behind these holidays, because I don’t think people are going to continue to do Judaism just because they feel vaguely Jewish, or because Bubby was Jewish, or because of the Holocaust.

Pogrebin: What does it mean to be able to be involved in Judaism in this moment without the structures we’re used to?

Hurwitz: You know, many, many, many American Jews are not members of any kind of Jewish organization, a synagogue [or] any other Jewish organization. That’s actually quite common. And, you know, for those who do and [the connection] is well developed, that’s great. But for the rest of us, you know, I think oftentimes trying to kind of walk into one of those institutions can be a bit alienating you know. And so I do think there is a model of an on-ramp of understanding Jewish wisdom, of learning about what Judaism has to offer you to help you be a better person [and] lead a more meaningful life. And I think that can be a really good on-ramp for people who aren’t necessarily institutionally connected.

Now, is that enough? No, I don’t think it is. I think community is quite central to Judaism. I don’t think you can necessarily do Judaism entirely absent from community, however you define community. But I do think it’s an interesting model.

Goodman: I’m gonna make the community argument now. And [over the] past decade, two things are on the rise: 1, loneliness, and 2, a sense of tribalism. And it seems like there’s obviously a contradiction between the two right? Now, loneliness, people feel unseen, anonymous. People, especially in the United States of America, feel like they have less best friends, [are] less connected to their own family, [have] less meaningful conversations with other people.

Tribalism is on the rise, political tribalism where you’re trapped in a digital tribe that’s filled with two things: a very strong sense that you are right and a very strong sense that the other people from the other camp, it’s not that they’re wrong, it’s that they’re dangerous, and they’re threatening. And tribes [are] filled with anger and hate. And I think developing community is the answer to tribalism, and the answer to loneliness. We don’t need tribes and we don’t need to be alone, we need communities. And I think what Judaism always did at its best was form powerful communities. And I know you asked [about] these rituals we need to rethink. But I think what rituals really do, it connects you to the other people that are practicing the ritual with you. It’s a glue that connects people together. I think it’s not that communities create rituals, it’s [that] rituals create communities. And if you’re right, Sarah, if corona means we’re on a break from rituals, it’s an opportunity to rethink our rituals and to reinvent our rituals, and to empower ritual. That’s very important.

Pogrebin: Micha, you are obviously in Israel, Sarah is in America. When you talk about tribalism, do you see this mirrored in both countries?

Goodman: So if in America the politics is polarized because it reflects a country that’s polarized, in Israel the paradox is that the politics is polarized, but it disguises the fact, it hides the fact that the country actually is not that polarized. I think that’s the difference.

Hurwitz: I agree with Micha and I think that rituals can create community, they can draw people in. The problem is that, you know, I think, to be totally honest here, the vast majority of American Jews know very little about Judaism.  Keep in mind [that] 72% of non-Orthodox Jews in America are married to people who are not Jewish, who have communities as well. And you know, we all have friends who are not Jewish. We have lots and lots of choices as to where we can find community. So if people don’t know what Judaism has to offer, if they don’t know why it’s transformative and meaningful, if they’re not in love with it, I think they will go elsewhere for community and I would understand that.

Goodman: Sarah, would you say that if American Jews don’t learn how to expand their knowledge, their understanding, their appreciation for Jewish wisdom, for Jewish tradition, for Jewish rituals [that] American Judaism doesn’t have a real future, a real, viable future? Is that fair to say, that the American Jews are weakening?

Hurwitz: No, I think it does. But I think it’s going to take an effort of epic translation, I think we’re actually really going to have to work to translate Judaism for American Jews. You know, we don’t proselytize, which I’m very happy about. I’m not a fan of that. But because we don’t proselytize, we don’t necessarily have the most well developed language for teaching Judaism for people who know nothing about it. And we’re gonna have to really work on that.

Pogrebin: There are observers who have described the tikkun olamism of Judaism, meaning that for many people, that’s where they’re finding their identity or their connection to tradition or even to feeling Jewish. Do you see this happening and does it worry you?

Goodman: I’ll speak about it as an Israeli, OK? Israel is so different [from] America, and the kind of Judaism that is developing here is so different, [so] the challenges we have are very, very different. In Israel, Judaism is not something you have to fight for in order for it to be a part of your life. In Israel, even if we won’t translate it, or won’t make it exciting, it’s gonna stay there. You know why? Because in Israel, Judaism is in the air. Even if you don’t think about it, you’re breathing it in. For Israelis, our identity is chosen for us. It’s hard for us to escape it.

For Americans, you have to choose it every day. Tikkun olam is a term from the Talmud, but the prophetic vision is that the way that Judaism can help heal the world is just being the best Jewish society you can be. And under the assumption that a country like Israel, if it elevates its moral standards, it will be inspiring for other societies and other countries. So for me, as an Israeli and as a Zionist, making the best Israel we can, building together the greatest Jewish state we can, that is tikkun olam because an exemplary society in Israel will be a role model for other societies in the world.

Hurwitz: I’m all for Jews who are excited about the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, tzedakah, social justice, but what I find is oftentimes, they just say ‘no, social justice is my Judaism,’ which is beautiful. But that’s also your Christianity, your Islam or Buddhism, you’re being a decent secular person, right? There’s nothing uniquely Jewish about social justice, about repairing the world.

However, there is a very unique, distinctive and deep, vast body of Jewish laws that actually indicate a highly unique approach to social justice, to repairing the world. There is a distinctly Jewish approach that is different from other approaches. And that, I think, is extraordinary and quite powerful. And it is intricately laid out in Jewish law. And I think if you don’t know that, I’m not really sure how doing social justice is particularly Jewish. So I think that’s a great way in, but I would really want people to actually understand what it means to do a Jewish kind of social justice.

Pogrebin: God is often missing from the conversation. What’s missing when we leave God out of it, especially during a pandemic when people are searching for reasons?

Hurwitz: I think what is just important for American Jews to understand, and we often don’t, is that Judaism is not just a religion. Judaism is a peoplehood. I can opt out of every tenant of Jewish religion, but I was born to Jewish parents, I’m still Jewish. Converted to Judaism? Still Jewish.

I think one of my biggest frustrations is that there’s this basically epic, awkward silence around God and Judaism. I think that spirituality can really make Judaism come alive. So what I wish was that more Jews realized, just the depth and the intelligence and the sophistication and the humility of our approach to God. I really wish that people understood that because I think if they did, Judaism would seem a lot more attractive to a lot of people.

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