Last week, the Conservative Movement approved a responsum permitting the livestreaming of religious services on Shabbat and holidays (with several caveats and constraints, and with the acknowledgement that the COVID-19 crisis accelerated the urgency of a question that was already being studied.) The press release and subsequent news coverage acknowledged that the responsum was oriented towards the High Holidays, just four months away. With the growing likelihood that synagogues will not be able to accommodate their usual crowds — if reopen for services at all — it makes sense that the Movement is thinking ahead about how to care for its constituents, and to create wide access for these religious experiences that for most American Jews represent the pinnacle of the liturgical year.

I am both sympathetic to this decision and all that motivates it; and I am extremely wary of its consequences. I am sympathetic because the decision is fundamentally rooted in a moral commitment to accessibility: a large number of regular synagogue-goers in the liberal American movements are older and most vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. Zoom and other such streaming technologies create access, if imperfectly, to the religious experience. The decision is also rooted in adaptability, in that this crisis is accelerating all of our own evolutions into not just adapting to aspects of life online but thriving in it. When religion is dragged kicking and screaming into technological innovation, it inevitably loses adherents. I am also sympathetic because I know the value of the High Holidays to the American liberal denominations; and whereas the Passover Seder, a domestic ritual, could find easy adaptation, it is scary to think of the future of the American synagogue without the 2–3 days per year on the High Holidays when it is full. And it is worth noting that in an open market for religious affiliation, it is reasonable for the Conservative Movement to fear that if they do not offer venues for accessing their own High Holiday services online, their members will look to other denominations for online offerings. This is one of the fundamental challenges faced by a movement that is ideologically committed to the halakhic process, with a membership that is more ambivalent about its constraints. In this regard, I admire my rabbinic colleagues for thinking inside the halakhic system to come up with these solutions.

But I am mostly wary of this decision. For me personally this is less about halakhic concerns — I do not consider myself expert on the ins-and-outs of the specific issues at play, even as our family does not use these technologies on Shabbat and holidays — but because I think what will be offered online will be so vastly inferior to the in-person experience. Worse, I believe this solution misses a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something else, far more creative, requiring a lot more work, that could productively reshape the meaning of prayer and commitment for the Movement for decades to come.

My proposal: Conservative synagogues should subdivide their congregations into networks of home-based micro-minyanim. It is reasonable to assume that by the fall, large gatherings will continue to be prohibited and considered dangerous, but small gatherings that follow social-distancing protocols will be permitted. In egalitarian communities, this can mean constituting minyanim of ten individuals with as few as just 2–3 families that live near one another, together with some support from the congregation to make sure that members or attendees who are less socially connected to others can get linked in to join these havurot. (I wonder as well whether getting most of the membership out of the building and into micro-minyanim could enable the synagogue to host a much smaller gathering for the members who need the kind of space and disability-access that the synagogue building can provide. And of course, the synagogues can stream services to all who are immuno-compromised or otherwise need to stay home during this prolonged crisis. And it goes without saying — but I’ll say it — that all that I am proposing must be governed by the recommendations of public health officials.)

For the synagogue to take the lead and to orchestrate these minyanim would have the effect of consolidating the sense of community across its proprietary network, as opposed to the odd effect that Zoom creates of feeling both part of something and very much disconnected. Minyanim in homes are prayer communities: they are rooted in intimacy, which is a critical element to a great prayer experience; they are empowering, in creating obligations on all in attendance to participate actively (as opposed to the “mute all” function of Zoom); and in the context of a home, even 10 people singing will actually sound like group singing. Streaming services, in contrast, will cement the weakest feature of the American liberal synagogue, which is the feeling that the congregant is witness to a performance rather than an essential participant in and contributor to a collective religious experience.

The biggest challenge in this plan would appear to be the necessary literacy and talent needed to have prayer leaders in so many Jewish households. This, again, is an extraordinary opportunity. The Conservative Movement is about to have thousands of high school and college students who will be home, alone, and bored for the summer; and a laity that is not challenged enough by the Movement to turn its passively-acquired knowledge of the services, accumulated over time, into the competency to lead services. How remarkable could it be if the Movement spent the next four months training up its teens, young adults, and enthusiastic lay leaders to become leaders of tefillot? Rather than these High Holiday minyanim disempowering the cantorate, our cantors would become the educators-at-large for the Movement — solidifying relationships with their local communities, and building an expansive network of competent prayer leaders. We cannot underestimate how transformational this could be for the culture of prayer in our communities. Any prayer leader knows that it is a gift to lead services in a community of other people who also know how to lead. No one wants to stand in a room singing alone for others. When we go back to synagogue, wouldn’t it be amazing to have 50 or 100 individuals in the room who will have led these services for the first time during this impossible time? Imagine if the success story of this period of time for the Conservative Movement was a far more learned, synagogue-competent laity. It could have an effect that could redound with significance for generations.

There are two other challenges — one easily solvable, and one not. I do not know what to do about Torah reading, though I am reminded of the indefatigable Chabad emissaries who read Megillah on porches throughout New Rochelle during the early days of the pandemic; and maybe there’s a way to create a roving reader, Torah in hand? Or maybe this is just something that is lost — or a sacrifice that can be as easily accommodated by creative responsa as the streaming solution.

The other challenge is an opportunity. Our rabbis can still give their sermons on the evenings before the holidays via livestream; and perhaps they can provide resources for the micro-minyanim to continue studying and discussing the themes of their teaching in the minyanim themselves. This, too, could be transformational. Rabbis would have the most receptive sermon audience in history — only be who opt-in would be there! But more importantly, the educational opportunity offered by this framework is unprecedented. For all the joys that the sermon offers the rabbi — the chance to say one’s piece to a full crowd, once or twice a year — the framework of the micro-minyan could create a networked community of learning whose value would long outlive this experience.

Meantime, embarking on this approach also catches up the flailing American synagogue movement to one of the most important trends in successful American religious behavior — the construction of the mega-church on the model of a convener of many sub-communities, built on affinities and activities. The central institution is strengthened, not diminished, by these small groups: it is like an institutional equivalent of majestic vaulted architecture, held up by its constituent parts. I am not sure most American synagogues can hold the diversity of American Jewish identities, or accommodate the many implicit micro-communities that already exist. Many are already buckling under the pressure. But if the synagogue owns these communities, designs them, empowers them — then they are the synagogue, not just in a time of crisis but as a framework for new opportunity.

Fifteen years ago, Stephanie and I joined with a group of friends in Brookline, MA to found an independent minyan. We did so in part because we felt personally uncompelled by the local Orthodox and Conservative options; but more affirmatively what emerged for us was a deep sense of compulsion by the work of creating and sustaining community, and by the thrill of creating lay-led, collaborative, communal and religious experiences. The intimacy of the minyan context connected many people to spirituality and community — especially during the High Holidays — that they couldn’t access in the large synagogue framework. We are now proud members of a Conservative synagogue in the New York area; but every year we drive back to Boston to be part of the minyan community there. We have thrived, as Jews, through direct access to both of these forms of belonging.

This is the moment for observant American liberal Judaism to unify the synagogue and the minyan. The synagogue is ultimately at its best when it is a framework for expansive community; the minyan provides intimacy, obligation, and participation at a level that the big synagogue can never fully offer. We will go back to the big synagogue experience at some point in the future. But the big takeaway from the strange High Holidays of 2020 could be that we will go back emboldened and empowered: instead of streaming services in which we were observers, we led our way through — together, if temporarily apart.

[May 16, 2020]