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Leaving Our Caves: The Difficulties of Post-Pandemic Reentry

This is my weekly message to Congregation B'nai Israel of Albuquerque on Thursday, 4/29/21

What does it mean to end our confinement? The Talmud tells a story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son who spent 12 years in a cave hiding from the Roman authorities who sought to execute them.   At the end of that time Elijah tells them that the emperor has died and the decree against them has expired. Rabbi Shimon and his son emerge from the cave.  Talmud relates that every place that they placed their eyes was immediately burned. A voice from heaven comes to them. “Did you emerge in order to destroy my world? Go back to your cave.”

As we emerge from our “caves”, how will we greet the post pandemic world? How will we respond to it? How will it be different? How will we be different?  I think all of us have some anxiety about the return to normalcy. We are not sure what normalcy will look like. 

We are entering a transitional period. The congregation is slowly returning to in-person events. We started outdoor Friday evening services in April. My Wednesday evening class decided to meet in person this week. The board decided on Sunday (4/25) to officially reopen congregational Shabbat services on the weekend of June 18-19th. While our religious school continues to meet online, discussions are already underway on how the school can reopen for the 2021-2022 school year.

A picture is beginning to emerge about congregational life in the post pandemic period. It is not crystal clear. I am sure there will be surprises as we strive to resume our pre pandemic lives. In my message today, I want to share two observations on how in-person experiences at the synagogue will be different from the pre pandemic world.

The Hybrid Experience.

I think one of the changes that we will experience at the congregation is the role that technology will continue to play even when we gather in-person. Our services and adult education offerings will come in hybrid form: a mix of in person and online. Certainly, over the last year, many of us have gotten used to online services and classes. While I know that many people will be relieved about being able to attend physical services, the new challenge will be getting used to having a certain percentage of participants attending online for our regular in person gatherings. What will it mean to have a screen in the sanctuary with the Zoom tiles of remote attendees?  Rabbis are already struggling to adjust to this new reality. (see this article: As U.S. synagogues start to reopen, Zoom becomes the elephant in the room - U.S. News - Haaretz.com). Some have already expressed concern about this shift to the hybrid experience for a host of reasons, the most common being the impact on the in-person experience of Jewish life. On the other hand, the hybrid approach brings greater inclusivity, making it easier for remote congregants and shut-ins to attend. 

The Altered Torah Reading

One post pandemic reality that is in store for us will be an altered Torah reading at Shabbat morning services. Due to a shortage of skilled Torah readers at CBI, we will need to conduct the Torah reading in a different way. When we reconvene in June, our Torah reading will be shorter, reduced to @21 verses (7 aliyot) instead of reading from the triennial reading (which often has as many as 50 verses in the reading).

During the pandemic when we could not gather in a physical minyan, the national Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards suggested that synagogues could hold virtual zoom services on Shabbat but should not read directly from the Torah scroll. Instead, we could read from a Humash, which made reading from the Torah easier than reading directly from the scroll which requires more preparation. In addition, during the pandemic we did not call people up to the Torah for Torah blessings since we were not reading from a Torah scroll.   

Now that we are returning to services with a physical minyan, we would like to return to the in-person reading from the from the Torah Scroll and move away from reading from a “Humash” (or “Tikkun”, an aid for preparing a Torah reading) either online or in person.  But it is clear that we no longer have enough skilled readers to be able to read from the scroll the full triennial reading week after week (at least for the time being). I am recommending that at in-person services starting on June 19th we read from the scroll for the first “aliyah”. All subsequent aliyot can be read by readers from the Humash either online or in-person. On June 19th we will resume calling people up to the Torah for the Torah blessings even when we read from the “Humash”. 

These changes in the Torah reading will be in place for the transition and perhaps longer until we can recruit and train more Torah readers. I realize that these changes may be jarring for some. The truth is that maintaining a traditional Torah reading at CBI has been a challenge for a long time, even prior to my arrival as interim. The pandemic exacerbated this challenge. It is now time to make the adjustment, so we do not strain our current volunteers who devote time to preparing the readings week after week. I am working on a longer-term solution which I will share at a future date. Meanwhile, I encourage members to consider learning the basic skills of reading Torah to help share the responsibility to sustaining our collective Torah reading. 

Emerging from our pandemic caves will be both an exciting and an anxious time. I hope that our reemergence will lead to the joy of community and the happiness of reconnecting with others. I hope to see you as we reconvene and rediscover the joys of physical connectedness and of communal Jewish life.

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

PS. I wish everyone of you Lag Ba’omer Same’ah which starts tonight. It is a minor Jewish holiday. To learn more about it click on the link. HERE

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