Finding ways to get congregants re-engaged with a synagogue as coronavirus-related safety restrictions have loosened in recent months has been a challenge for Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park, in West Hempstead. Bracha Rutner, a member of Eitz Chayim’s adult education committee, said that many congregants were still nervous about returning in person.
“Like many other synagogues, it was a big loss in our lives when we were forced to close,” Rutner recalled. “When there were talks about the synagogue reopening, we were very interested in supporting whatever needed to be done in order to reopen with all of the safety requirements.”
Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park was among 35 synagogues in the U.S. to receive a grant from the Orthodox Union, the nation’s oldest and largest umbrella organization for the North American Orthodox Jewish community. The O.U. has awarded $100,000 in grants to synagogues in an effort to bring communities back to shul as more people are vaccinated against Covid-19.
“People began to look at synagogues in a different way, because it had been out of their lives for so long,” Rutner said. “While it usually served as a center of the community, that feeling wasn’t there. When I saw this opportunity, we thought it would be a great way to bring people back.”
The O.U. received more than 300 requests for grants from 34 states. The recipients, selected by the O.U. Grant Committee, were recognized for “out-of-the-box” thinking and opportunities that are more likely to reaffirm the value of synagogue and community. Ideas included hosting a communal Kiddush celebration as a “makeup” for missed milestones, a back-to-shul fair and a communal parlor meeting project to help synagogue officials understand the changed needs of congregants.
“The Covid-19 pandemic reminded us all that the shul experience creates a sense of community that is irreplicable,” O.U. President Moishe Bane said in a news release. “Shul leaders across the country are discovering new ways to bring back our communities stronger than ever — our families, our singles, our seniors and our youth — and we are thrilled to be able to partner with them on this endeavor.”
The O.U. compiled a database so that shuls around the world could have access to the ideas. At Eitz Chayim, Rutner proposed inviting Jewish social media personalities and influencers to the synagogue to promote the importance of religion. “I’m very active on social media, and I’ve befriended several Jewish influencers online,” she said. “I think that with the younger generation, we have to find different ways to inspire them by bringing in people that speak in our language.”
Rutner, who is also the head of school at the Yeshiva University High School for Girls in Hollis, Queens, said she was in constant communication with other educators. She noted that many synagogues were dealing with the challenges of maintaining interest among younger congregants.
“Our synagogue is the hub for a lot of different things,” Rutner said. “It’s the convening force in the lives of many people, so once people recognize the added value of synagogue in their own lives, they will give back and then it becomes a positive cycle.”
“In every Jewish community, the shul is meant to be central to communal infrastructure and experience,” O.U. Executive Vice President Rabbi Moshe Hauer said. “The Covid reset is enabling shuls to rethink and enhance that role, identifying ways to strengthen the communal bond and the connection of all community members to Torah and Jewish life. Throughout this grant-making process, it has been inspiring to see the energies and thought being brought to bear on this issue.”
Rutner, who plans to invite a guest Jewish social media influencer next month, said that it could become a continuing program at the synagogue. “If this is successful,” she said, “I’d like for other synagogues to go ahead and capitalize on this idea and use it in their own community.”