This document is being shared simultaneously with URJ congregational presidents, CCAR rabbis, ACC cantors, ARJE educators, ECE-RJ educators, and NATA executive directors. This is a call to leadership for our Reform Movement. Please take the time to read it, and may it guide all of us during these challenging times.
March 31, 2020
We begin with thanks for the extraordinary leadership you are all providing amidst the unprecedented challenge of this pandemic. As clergy, educators, staff, and lay leaders, you have offered safety, wisdom, assurance, and compass to your communities when they need it most. Your voices have brought comfort, your insights have raised awareness, and you have been teachers in every moment: from the pastoral care you give to the worship you offer to the decisions you make, you have embodied the best of a Reform Jewish tradition that brings the wisdom of the ages into the crucible of the everyday.
The crisis is still growing, and we all confront the challenge of making wise decisions at the limits of knowledge. But we know that as sure as any text we illuminate or melody we share, our decisions offer our most compelling teaching: our most powerful Torah is the lived example we offer.
And that is where we would express this concern: we are worried that as a Movement, we still have significant improvement to make in observing sufficient restrictions to help flatten the curve of the spread of COVID-19. We are well aware that the impact of the virus has been more severe in some regions of the country than in others, and that regional governments have taken different stances regarding required restrictions on activity, sometimes varying not only state by state, but county by county or city by city. The risk of an array of diverse and sometimes conflicting regulations is that our congregants may choose the voice that is most convenient for them to hear or simply act without sufficient caution because the standards are unclear. Amidst that potential confusion, the example set by congregational leadership can not only provide clarity, it can save lives.
That is why we urge you to take the most restrictive steps possible in order to help limit the spread of disease. Affordable technologies like Zoom and Facebook Live make it possible for congregations to reach into the homes and hearts of their members without being in the same space, and without service leaders being in our Temple buildings. Even where other activity might still be permitted by local authorities, we strongly recommend that congregational leaders observe and endorse a strategy of shelter-in-place, by which:
- the only in-person function that congregations offer be graveside funerals attended by ten people or fewer, dependent on rules set by local cemeteries, with those present observing appropriate social distancing;
- any other congregational activity, from worship services to shivah minyanim to classes, meetings, and programs, regardless of the number of participants, take place via Zoom, Facebook Live, or other affordable technologies. Congregations should not facilitate or endorse any physical gathering of persons who do not already live in the same house, including bar/bat mitzvahs;
- even in our many communities where members feel a strong visual attachment to a beloved worship space, and even recognizing that the on-screen sight of worship leaders in a familiar space can be a source of comfort at a time of disruption, services and all other activities be streamed exclusively from leaders’ homes;
- lay and professional congregational leaders refrain from requiring any staff member to engage in work activity that the staff member might consider dangerous or uncomfortable in this environment.
We have begun to see the connective power of technologies we once regarded only as distancing. Clergy, staff, and laypeople alike have expressed both heartbreak at the inability of friends to offer physical comfort to mourners, and at the same time the remarkable consoling power of prayer, song, and story shared via Zoom. Congregants in many communities have quickly and warmly adapted to seeing their rabbis, cantors, and educators leading services, lighting candles, offering learning, and sharing community from home, and inviting congregants to join them. The URJ, CCAR, ACC, ARJE, NATA, ECE-RJ, and PEP-RJ, stand ready to help with resources and ideas as your congregation makes the transition to either creating or providing links to online offerings. The examples of Jewish creativity in the face of crisis continue to grow each day, consistent with the creative genius our people has shown throughout the generations.
We know that circumstances vary from region to region and congregation to congregation, and we know that you as leaders will make the best decisions for your communities. We also understand that the realities of your home situation may reflect your decision-making process. But as diverse as circumstances might be, the overarching Jewish value common to every circumstance is pikuach nefesh, the supreme value of saving a life. We would be remiss if we didn’t express in the strongest possible terms our conviction that whatever the present impact of the virus on your community, the greatest caution will save the greatest number of lives.
At this season of Pesach, we wish you seders, in whatever virtual form, of meaning and hope. May all of us, and those we lead, know safety and strength. On this night of vigil, may our staying home once again save lives. May this be a season of life and promise for you and all of your loved ones.
Rabbi Ron Segal, President, Central Conference of American Rabbis
Rabbi Hara Person, Chief Executive, Central Conference of American Rabbis
Jennifer Kaufman, Chair, Union for Reform Judaism
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President, Union for Reform Judaism
Cantor Seth Warner, Vice President, American Conference of Cantors
Rachel Roth, Chief Operating Officer, American Conference of Cantors
Dr. Katherine Schwartz, RJE, President, Association of Reform Jewish Educators
Rabbi Stanley Schickler, RJE, Executive Director, Association of Reform Jewish Educators
Jack Feldman, President, National Association of Temple Administrators
Michael Liepman, Executive Director, National Association of Temple Administrators
Tricia Ginis, Executive Director ECE-RJ
Lori Kowit, President ECE-RJ
Bryan Bierman, President, Program and Engagement Professionals of Reform Judaism
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