26 February 2021
As Zoom Happy Hours gave way to Zoom Seders, Zoom break-fasts, and eventually Zoom menorah lightings, it became clear that our year of living digitally would have lasting impacts on Jewish identity and engagement. Even as we refrained from gathering in person with our local communities, Jewish life continued moving forward, adapting and transforming to fit the constraints of our 21st century quarantine. The question now is what kind of mark will this untraditional year leave on Jewish engagement? How can we harness what we have learned in order to strengthen Jewish life and identity for the future?
The central thesis of Jewish engagement for the past couple decades has been that there are particular points in the course of a person’s life when identity and social networks potentially shift dramatically. If we, as a Jewish community, are there for each other in those moments—particularly key life transitions, including teenage years, college and young adulthood, and, if applicable, early parenthood and eventually empty nesters—there is a much greater chance that we will develop deep ties to each other in the Jewish community, engage in Jewish experiences, and find joy and meaning in our Jewish identity throughout our lifetime. The more community members who do this, the stronger and more vibrant the Jewish future will be.
To me, this thesis remains fundamentally sound. Take the teenage years for example; no matter what technological and social shifts await us in the future, middle and high school years will still be a time when kids are eager to form independent identities and relationships separate from their parents. Our goal, therefore, must be to continue showing up for people at pivotal moments in their lives in the most accessible, effective, and compelling ways possible. What this pandemic year is asking us to consider, however, is what constitutes compelling moving forward?
These questions would be intriguing enough within the context of Jewish Greater Washington—indeed, we were exploring them before the pandemic began. But the pandemic has taught us many things about ourselves, our community, and possibilities for the future. We have seen the breakdown of geographic boundaries when it comes to accessing Jewish content. We have seen, through its absence, how much we all crave human connection and contact. We have realized how creative and resourceful we can be when it comes to observing Jewish rituals on our own.
As we are set to discuss with Dr. Erica Brown and Dr. Tal Becker at the third and final installment of our lecture series with the Shalom Hartman Institute, everything we have uncovered has prepared us to make some big decisions about the future of Jewish engagement. Now that we know what it is like to do things differently, our job as a community will be to figure out how to restore the things we miss while holding on to the advantages of our latest adaptations.
This will require continued experimentation, risk-taking, listening, and learning, but our collective efforts will be well worth it. The work we put in now will have reverberating impact for years to come. Rather than simply close out this period of accelerated change, we can keep the evolution going so as to ensure more people find what they want and need from Jewish life in a post-pandemic world.