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The Coronavirus Pandemic and the Future of Organized Religion

By now, it is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the entire world is changing life as we know it. It is less clear, but certainly as true, that this experience will have long term effects on how we live on this planet after the pandemic is over. Someone once defined war as “time in fast motion.” War accelerates the creation of new technology, new modalities of social organization, new means of production and distribution and new means of social interaction. Clearly, COVID-19 is a kind of war which is fueling massive change across the spectrum of human activity. On the other side of this crisis after there is an effective vaccine to block the further spread of the disease, full treatment of the disease and sufficient supplies of all necessary medical equipment, life is not going to go back to the way it was, let’s say, in December 2019. Like the Disney song declares, it’s a whole new world, now and we need to try and anticipate what the post-COVID 19 21st century world will look like.

There are so many aspects to this discussion, it is hard to know where to begin. What to do about health care in general is clearly the number one issue. Second, the enhanced role of technology and particularly the role of technology in communication and business is changing how we live. My senses are we probably will not reevaluate the question of things like nationalism versus internationalism, although the need for more, not less, global cooperation is clear, at least to me.

The one area I can speak to, but not prognosticate about, is the impact of COVID-19 on organized religion. Organized religion, of course, is not the same as private spirituality. If anything, COVID-19 and its isolating effect has forced people to think about their basic values and priorities and to explore different ways of keeping their spirits up during these trying times. Some pray, some meditate, some exercise, some listen to music, some light candles, some seek out community through the internet and some crave maintaining human contact through virtual means.

But what about organized religion? What about houses of worship and congregations and other formal structures built around the concept of a spiritual community? Will they survive the COVID-19 pandemic? Are they part of what, in a different context, government (at all levels) is calling “essential business?” I heard one unofficial report that as many as 25% of all churches and synagogues will close in the United States by the end of the summer for lack of funding. Some will simply shut down and shutter; still others will find ways to merge and thereby preserve some infrastructure and many basic services. Huge decisions about congregational identity, autonomy and culture will have to be made at an accelerated rate.

The fact of the matter is that all types of changes were occurring before the pandemic broke out in the world of organized religion. Secularism or no religion at all, has been growing, especially among young American Jews. Affiliation rates have been falling across our entire community. The use of technology in religion was also increasing in many different ways before the pandemic. On the other hand, charitable support has been shifting away from religious institutions in the Jewish community and toward general education, health and cultural concerns. The differential in giving is increasingly pronounced. Meanwhile, some Jewish organizations like the old Philadelphia Jewish Y had already failed and others, like the National Museum of American Jewish History, announced bankruptcy just before and not because of the pandemic. But these institutions are secular and cultural. What about our synagogues? Can they survive COVID-19 or are they going to be among the permanent victims of this historic pandemic?

My sense is that many synagogues will indeed fail or at least be compelled to merge. On the other hand, I believe that the synagogue as an institution will survive this emergency situation. A synagogue in real space or online creates a critical mass of Jewish activity. It also has the capacity to attract and maintain trained, dedicated staff who can do everything from introducing little children in Preschool to Jewish life to running a funeral for a family with complex dynamics (and we all have complex dynamics). Synagogues like the Eternal Light which hangs in front of the ark are constant. They are open and available in the summer when people are down the shore and in the dead of winter when people are sheltered at home against the cold.

Increasingly, synagogues are learning how to be both in person and virtual communities. The line between the two is blurring rapidly. You can come to services or you can participate online. But the reason that it works is that if you belong to a synagogue, when you use it virtually, you have a real human contact to the people and leadership there. In other words, synagogues are living Jewish communities. They are not on demand, pay for service Jewish human resource agencies. Synagogues do not provide rent-a-rabbi but a rabbi who knows you and your family, your joys and your sorrows. It’s not just a question of who can read the prayers in Hebrew, you can actually get prerecorded digital messages. It’s who will say the prayers with you and be the living bridge between yourself, tradition and today with all its challenges.

Finally, this is the biggest question: does religion provide answers to the big questions? That depends on the question. In my view, the question, “Why did God create and spread COVID-19” is based on an unworkable assumption about the nature of a God is all powerful, all knowing and controlling every detail on every action on earth, the moon and beyond. God is not the head of a cosmic insurance company that provides protection from all catastrophes – human or natural. COVID-19 is not an “act of God.”

An act of God is a compassionate health care worker who goes to work every day in an ICU unit to take care of the sick and dying. An act of God is a dentist who gives away all of his or her medical masks to a local hospital in need of protective gear. An act of God is a synagogue that, despite its own financial challenges, makes collecting funds for children’s lunches during school closures its first order of business. Kindness, mercy and justice are all acts of God and synagogues, among other institutions, are the repositories of goodwill that make acts of God happen locally and beyond. The question is not “Where is God?” but rather, “Where is humanity?” Chances are, people linked together in communities of faith will be quicker to answer “here we are” – we are here for each other, we are here for you, we are here for humanity. In that sense, yes, a synagogue is an essential business and worth preserving. So, if you can, help keep KI alive, now, tomorrow and next year. We have a lot of work to do for the good of all, and together, we will do it.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.

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