Each fall, the Jewish High Holidays draw communities together for some of the year's most important rituals. Even Jews who don't attend their temple's regularly scheduled programming tend to make a point of spending a few days celebrating the new year and reflecting on the one that's passed. Now that we're socially distanced, how do we make sure the rituals are still observed? The experience of gathering and connecting still felt?
This year, in light of our collective Zoom fatigue, services have been shortened to just a few hours, which is already pushing the shredded edge of our online attention span. After seven months of pandemic, mass unemployment, racial justice reckonings, and school closures, it’s hard to abstain and reflect on your own transgressions when all you want is comfort food and a hug. Knowing that, the Union for Reform Judaism, leading the largest, most diverse Jewish movement with nearly 850 congregations across the U.S. and Canada, asked IDEO to help design a few offscreen moments as supplements to the synagogues' videotaped services.
To think beyond the Zoom and understand what people are craving this year, we joined Mobius for a workshop with community builders like the founder of The Dinner Party, interviewed rabbis who have responded to modern yens with yoga and dance parties, talked to a “ritualist” about how to design a memorial, and met with the creator of This Human Moment, an immersive online experience. Our collaborators at the URJ, Amy Asin, Rabbi Leora Kaye, and Rabbi Esther Lederman, along with staff from the Righteous Person’s Foundation, which provided funding for the project, helped us ground modern exercises in a 3,000 year-old tradition—pouring old wine into new bottles.
We learned that what people need right now is to feel supported and comforted by some semblance of normalcy—a holiday that feels more like getting into a warm bath (or a mikvah, where you immerse yourself in water, as we learned from the URJ’s Rabbi Leora Kaye) than like a wake-up call. We learned from speaking to congregants that they don’t just come to temple for services, but for the casual synagogue interactions. It's a chance to see Mr. and Mrs. Riley, that lovely old couple who are somehow still alive, or family friends you haven’t had the chance to call, or that old school crush who still causes your stomach to flutter once a year.
The ideas that emerged can be found at reflect.reformjudaism.org, and they don’t look much like your aunt Sheila’s seder table. They include ways to do a check-in on your spiritual health (as you might at an annual physical); ways to memorialize a person who died or an event the pandemic shut down or how to let go of a burdensome feeling; and a collage exercise that has you scrapbook the community you’re missing by congregating in digital space. And for those looking to know more about how the activities relate to Jewish wisdom and custom, the bottom of each page invites visitors to “Explore more and go deeper” with links to essays on ReformJudaism.org.
Each activity was designed to be radically inclusive—as welcoming to those who don’t know a single Hebrew word and don’t believe in God as it is to believers with scholarly knowledge. The experience is a la carte, customizable, and while housed on a screen, designed to be non-screen-based. As identity changes in America—where one-in-five Jews describe themselves as having no religion—it’s become increasingly important for Jewish organizations to offer those still seeking community and spiritual life a radically new way to engage. That’s what this is.
It’s been said that religion was the answer to a cry for help. Right now, everyone could use a little help. And awe. And beauty. And routine. Religious rituals were built to keep us in line, to keep us connected, and to keep time. Much of that has been broken by COVID. So the question for designers becomes, how might we, within the constraints of the day, mine a bit of gold that can fill in the cracks?