Our Avodah (Work) during the Coronavirus Pandemic

Jun 15, 2020 by

Our Avodah (Work) during the Coronavirus Pandemic

The CCAR Committee for Worship and Practice had dedicated its work for 2019–2020 to the question: What are the spiritual practices and needs of Reform Jews—both non-ordained and ordained? We began meeting and working last fall and winter—and then the coronavirus pandemic happened.

And so, after taking a short break to adjust to an altered reality, we dedicated two of our meetings to the questions: What is the meaning of our avodah in the year of the pandemic? and What is our avodah especially during the High Holy Day season this year? 

We learned that what we as rabbis are asked to do is similar to the work of translation: We need to go back to our core theologies, spiritual practices, communal commitments, and ethical callings—and then we have to “translate” those into a new language of Zoom, Facetime, Vimeo, and Google Meet. As Reform rabbis, we are intimately familiar with the practice of translation. It is one of the first skills we practice in rabbinical school, and it forms the basis of our work after ordination: translating the wisdom of our tradition, originating in languages and cultural frameworks vastly different from our own, into an idiom that our communities can understand and appreciate. In this way, we help Torah to adapt itself to every generation.  

As we begin to prepare for the High Holy Days this year, with many of us learning an entirely new language, we found it helpful to be guided by questions—questions we want to share with you, our colleagues, along with some preliminary answers (far from being exhaustive!): 

Core Theologies, Spiritual Practices, Communal Commitments, and Ethical Callings: What Remains the Same?

  • We as clergy still model spirituality and spiritual practices.
  • Pre-existing relationships matter. It is much easier to maintain pre-existing relationships, than create new ones.
  • While some people enjoy active participation, others still simply join to watch.

Name What Hurts: Which Changes May Be Painful?

  • There is an immense pressure on clergy to learn many new skills, especially technical ones, in a short time. 
  • Virtual communities in a time of social distancing collapse the boundaries between our private and our synagogue lives.
  • Virtual communities sometimes encourage passivity, we “show” rather than “share.” 

Lean into the New: Which Changes Might Be Inspiring and Insightful?

  • The visual components of prayer become center piece. 
  • One-on-one prayer, counseling, and meetings allow for a new intimacy. 
  • Virtual communities allow us to demonstrate our vulnerability and imperfection, and this promotes connection. 

Comfort: What Can We Learn from the New Centrality of Our (Jewish) Homes? 

  • Private, personal, and home rituals and prayers gain new importance in the lives of Reform Jews. 
  • Showing our homes on screen also gives us an opportunity to share the sacredness of our own homes—this can be a form of hidur mitzvah.  
  • Leading our services from home allows for a more improvised and spontaneous experience of prayer. 

Familiarity: What Can We Learn from the New Centrality of Jewish Time? 

  • Jewish time has taken on a renewed meaning. The cycle of the holidays, the Omer, and above all Shabbat, help us differentiate between days that seem otherwise indistinguishable

While it might not have been a big surprise, it is still worthy for us to reiterate: our work is sacred work, and it has always been “mediated”—that means, it has always been communicated through books, phones, videos, touch, smiles, words, livestreams, and melodies. Our core theologies, spiritual practices, communal commitments, and ethical callings remain the same also in the time of the coronavirus.

However, during a time of prolonged distancing and a potentially altered reality to return to, we are asked to do the work of “translation”: to ask, once again, how we can make sure that our Torah may enrich, comfort, and engage our people. This is the work we do.  

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