Orthodox Union Exec: ‘We Must Bring the Backyard Experience into the Shul Instead of the Shul Experience to the Backyard’

14 Dec 2020

With Pandemic’s End In Sight, Small Synagogues Convene To Discuss Returning To Full Operations

NEW YORK – Responding to the challenges that many smaller Orthodox Jewish shuls are experiencing in engaging and growing their communities during the pandemic, the Orthodox Union’s Pepa and Rabbi Joseph Karasick Department of Synagogue & Community Services recently convened rabbinic and lay leadership from more than 21 smaller Orthodox communities to virtually discuss and collaborate on strategies to help them unite and ignite their synagogues throughout turbulent times where communal physical gatherings in their buildings have been on pause for close to nine months.

A major challenge many communities are concerned about is how to bring their small backyard minyanim back into the brick-and-mortar sanctuary, as many are worried that participants have grown increasingly comfortable in these small settings.

Participants took part in group discussions about their shared and individual challenges and spoke about programs and initiatives they were able to employ within their local communities. They also heard from Orthodox Union executives about the challenges all Orthodox shuls will face as they strive to return to their synagogue-centered communities. The event closed with a presentation on the use of various functions synagogues can employ on the Zoom platform.

The participating shuls came from 10 U.S. states as well as Canada, including: Knesseth Israel in Birmingham, AL; Beth Jacob Congregation in Los Angeles, CA; the Young Israel of Northridge in Northridge, CA; Kenesset Israel Torah Center in Sacramento, CA; Delray Orthodox Synagogue in Delray, FL; the Young Israel of Tampa in Tampa, FL; Congregation Ariel in Dunwoody, GA; the Mt. Freedom Jewish Center in Mt. Freedom, NJ; BACH Jewish Center in Long Beach, NY; Congregation Ohav Shalom in Merrick, NY; the Young Israel of Merrick in Merrick, NY; the Mt. Kisco Hebrew Congregation in Mt. Kisco, NY; the Young Israel of Oceanside in Oceanside, NY; the Young Israel of New Hyde Park in New Hyde Park, NY; Kesher Israel in Harrisburg, PA; Congregation Ohav Zedek in Wilkes-Barre, PA; Congregation Rodfei Shalom in San Antonio, TX;  Knesseth Beth Israel in Richmond, VA; Anshai Sfard Kehillat Torah in Glendale, WI; and Beth Israel Edmonton in Edmonton, Canada.

“Earlier in the pandemic synagogue leadership needed to establish the limitations that were medically advised to establish safety. Now – within the appropriate safety standards – we must focus more of our efforts and energies on safely bringing our communities together as much as possible. Earlier we were bringing the shul experience to the backyard; now, and for the future, we must bring the positive elements of the backyard minyan experience into the shul,” said Orthodox Union Executive Vice President Rabbi Moshe Hauer. “This meeting gave synagogues the opportunity to share best practices and explore strategies to meet the current challenges.”

“As we look toward what will hopefully be the last few months of the pandemic, as rabbis we need to focus on what steps we can begin to take, even now, to help bring our communities back together to our synagogues once it’s safe,” said OU Synagogue & Community Services Director Rabbi Adir Posy. “Through that process, we also need to look at some of the innovation that we deployed during the pandemic to see if there are best practices we can employ in the future. For example, virtual learning attracted many more people to shiurim, we must consider how we can incorporate that going forward.”

Founded in 1898, the Orthodox Union, (OU), serves as the voice of American Orthodox Jewry, with over 400 congregations in its synagogue network. As the umbrella organization for American Orthodox Jewry, the OU is at the forefront of advocacy work on both state and federal levels, outreach to Jewish teens and young professionals through NCSY, Israel Free Spirit Birthright, Yachad and OU Press, among many other divisions and programs.