Are Area Jews Returning to Synagogues Post-COVID? – Jewish Exponent

In Judaism, a community needs 10 people praying to make a minyan. But if 10 people meet on Zoom or livestream, it does not count according to Jewish law, argues Rabbi Isaac Leizerowski of the Orthodox Congregation Beth Midrash HaRav B’Nai Jacob in Philadelphia.
As the rabbi explained: “Zoom is not considered a physical presence. And you need a physical presence. That was considered an electronic picture and, therefore, was not considered an actual presence.” For that reason, Leizerowski’s congregation did not meet electronically during the pandemic. But it still had to follow city restrictions on crowd sizes. The rabbi estimated that groups were 50% smaller during COVID than they were before.
But when the restrictions were lifted, Leizerowski said, “We’re open.”
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“The next day, they’re all back,” he said of his congregants.
A similar scene is playing out across the Philadelphia area right now. Synagogues are reopening; members are coming back to buildings for services and activities; and the Zooms and livestreams of the COVID era are now only a tool for those who cannot make it, like certain elderly or disabled members or people who live out of town.
“It’s been a congregational benefit,” said Bruce Toben of the Conservative Congregation Tifereth Israel in Bensalem, referring to virtual gatherings. “But we shouldn’t rely on that.”
Almost any rabbi will tell you that a Jewish community should meet in person. But it’s not just a principle of Jewish law. It is also a practical action that congregants prefer because it makes them feel better.
Joel Horwitz, a member of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood, described a virtual gathering as “a very limited interaction.” Lately, he’s been sticking around after services on Shabbos morning to “kibbitz with people and catch up on the week.” And he has noticed that an in-person event gives people time to talk, make eye contact and see each other’s body language.
Rachel Fox, a congregant at Beth Tikvah-B’nai Jeshurun in Glenside, is back in the shul now as often as she can be, even for board meetings. As Fox put it, “everything’s better in person.” You can hug people, focus on services and find a deeper sense of belonging.
“Community,” she said.
But not all congregants in the region are ready to find community in and around the building again. Many synagogues are not yet back to the same crowd and group sizes for services and activities that they saw pre-COVID. Some are not even close.
Toben said Tifereth Israel’s crowd size during the High Holidays in the fall was 85% of what it was in 2019. At Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, crowds and groups are about 10% smaller than they were before 2020, according to Rabbi Albert Gabbai. But at both places, momentum seems to be moving in the right direction. Tifereth Israel saw almost 50 people show up for a young family Shabbat service in January. And Mikveh Israel is getting 60-70 members every week for Shabbat.
“They are coming. Some are still hesitant. Not too many,” Gabbai said.
Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park is not so lucky. Before the pandemic, it attracted 40-60 people to special Shabbat occasions, according to Rabbi Leah Berkowitz. Post-COVID, maybe 30 are coming in person, with 20 participating online. Beth El Synagogue in Margate, New Jersey, is in a similar situation. Only about 50% of congregants who attended services before 2020 are returning to the building in 2023, according to Rabbi Aaron Krauss.
“Most of the people just got into the habit of doing it on Zoom, and they still keep the habit,” Krauss said.
Berkowitz is hesitant to take away the Zoom option because it’s convenient for several groups, including homebound seniors, people with disabilities and young families with kids on tight schedules. It also makes services accessible for congregants who retire into the city, winter elsewhere or move away. At the same time, Berkowitz knows she probably needs to limit it.
Some synagogues, like Tifereth Israel, have made their livestreams one-way, meaning congregants can only watch from home, not participate. They have to come back in to participate. Beth Hamedrosh only uses Zoom to make gatherings like board meetings easier. Gabbai said Zoom is good for congregants who live outside the city in Cherry Hill to use for weeknight activities.
“We want to leave the Zoom option available for people who want to be part of the service but have mobility issues or are elderly shut-ins,” said Rabbi Jeff Schnitzer of Tifereth Israel.
But he also added that, “We established the Zoom participation as an emergency during the pandemic. I can’t justify it anymore since the building is open. I can’t find an excuse within all of Jewish law to allow this to continue.” ■
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