How COVID has challenged Judaism

If the religious connection of three-day Jews on the eve of COVID was tenuous at best, the pandemic has handed many of them a “get out of synagogue free” card. It’s far easier to justify those unsettling feelings about taking time off, putting on your tallit, and fasting during a pandemic.

This is causing alarm bells to ring in the ears of American Jewish leaders already struggling to keep their flocks together. As synagogues have been closed or limited owing to the pandemic, rabbis have been forced to “innovate” and cater to congregants. “People today are looking to Jewish institutions to satisfy them where they are,” Rabbi Howard Stecker of Temple Israel in New York told Pew during in-depth interviews. Nor is he alone. In the nearly three dozen interviews that Pew conducted with rabbis and community leaders, many spoke about the need for nimbleness and creativity in meeting the demands of disconnected Jews. One New Jersey rabbi leads religious discussions at a local bar — “Torah on Tap” — while another in Massachusetts created a monthly Shabbat service with drumming and meditation. Although well-intentioned, these initiatives paper over the deeper structural problems afflicting three-day Jews; they are simply Band-Aids on broken legs…

Whereas COVID-19 represents a momentary setback for Orthodox Jews, for the rest of the community it will be devastating. Three-day Jews will become zero-day Jews: a lost generation of youth whose disconnection has been accelerated because of the pandemic. Onboarding them back into the Jewish community will be even more difficult following the loss of significant milestones in the education of Jewish youth.