If some rabbis are right, religion in the US could be on the brink of its biggest technology-induced change in a generation © Lindsey Wasson/Getty

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The Book of Leviticus used to be every rabbi’s nightmare, Joshua Stanton remarks, as he tries to find a bright side to a year in which he has conducted too many funeral services from his bedroom. Teaching biblical passages about leprosy had been a challenge in the 21st century, but “now all of a sudden it resonates differently”. 

A modern-day plague is forcing Rabbi Stanton to hold most of this month’s Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services via Zoom. But “Rabbi Josh”, as he is known at East End Temple, his reform congregation in Manhattan, sees Covid-19 bringing bigger upheavals to what he calls the business of religion. “Religion is facing a day of judgment,” he declares, noting that many US synagogues and churches risk financial collapse — even as demand for spiritual comfort is booming. 

Empty pews mean empty collection plates, and more than 88,000 religious organisations have received rescue loans under Washington’s Paycheck Protection Program. Still, by one estimate, one in five US houses of worship may not survive the next 18 months. 

Repeating a line that has become a truism in the business world, Rabbi Stanton says the pandemic has accelerated existing trends by a decade. And in religion’s case, the trends were not encouraging. As recently as 1999, 70 per cent of Americans belonged to a church or synagogue. By last year barely half did. The share of Americans describing their religious affiliation as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” has risen from 17 per cent to 26 per cent in a decade. 

Rabbi Stanton believes that too many religious institutions have ignored their communities’ evolving needs. “People are yearning for spirituality and a place to reflect [but they associate] houses of worship with materialism, hypocrisy and vapid reflections on life,” he says.

Churches and synagogues have lost the US spiritual monopolies they once had, creating a “marketplace of meaning-making [that] is all over the place”, agrees Rabbi Benjamin Spratt of Congregation Rodeph Sholom on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Yoga classes, meditation apps and the booming wellness industry are all evidence of a mismatch between spiritual demand and religious supply, he contends.

But rabbis Spratt and Stanton argue that allowing out-of-touch institutions to fold is precisely what is needed for a spiritual revival. This will make way for groups that can better respond to what the UK’s former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, called “the moment of all moments for faith communities”. 

They point to the rising number of people who have logged into virtual services over recent six months while searching for outlets that resonate, untethered by geography. One report found that a third of practising US Christians “church-hopped” during the pandemic’s early months.

Rabbi Stanton’s community now has regular members from San Francisco and Seattle, and Rabbi Spratt has had pastoral conversations with people as far afield as Florida and Ireland. 

Covid-19 is creating “a winner takes all marketplace” in religion in which a few dozen houses of worship stand to achieve national or international reach while life gets harder for the rest, Rabbi Stanton says. That would echo what internet economics have done to newspapers and many other industries. 

It is risky to extrapolate from pandemic behaviour but, if the rabbis are right, religion in the US could be on the brink of its biggest technology-induced change since the deregulation of broadcast networks in the 1960s gave televangelists such as Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell Sr national pulpits.

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But today’s seekers are looking for something different. “People are searching for authenticity at a time of radical technological change and social unrest. They’re not looking for fancy outfits and slicked-back hair — and they’re not looking for just older white men,” Rabbi Stanton says. 

Today’s houses of worship are under pressure to offer humility, transparency and “dynamic dialogue” rather than thinking that just moving their traditional product online will be enough. After all, Rabbi Spratt notes, “We’re not going to be able to compete with Hamilton on Disney+”.


Letter in response to this column:

Zoom church services are no substitute for real thing / From Alistair Budd, Llanvair-Discoed, Monmouthshire, UK

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