As the pandemic stretched on and Zoom became a familiar mode of engagement, Beth El Congregation of the South Hills saw a “genuine community” developing online, said the congregation’s president, Susie Seletz.
The group joining services and programs virtually, Seletz said, often included people who lived far from Beth El but were drawn to the congregation’s size, as well as the warmth of its members. In the spring of 2021, Beth El leaders convened a task force to explore how best to welcome and serve virtual attendees. The solution: virtual membership.
Chris Benton, Beth El’s executive director, participated in the task force and said virtual membership isn’t simply about providing Zoom links to weekday, Shabbat and holiday services, but enabling individuals to “connect with Beth El in a more formal way.”
The many benefits of virtual membership reflect the wide offerings provided to traditional members, Benton said. For starters, virtual members receive access to all religious services and classes, as well as the opportunity to meet with clergy for pastoral care or to explore conversion. Virtual members can also participate in Men’s Club and Sisterhood events, celebrate life cycle events — such as a bar or bat mitzvah — and attend religious school online. Additionally, virtual members can send Purim baskets, list loved ones in Beth El’s books of remembrance and access the congregation’s gift shop.
Virtual membership costs $660, which puts it within the range of Beth El’s traditional membership dues, Benton said.
Depending on someone’s age, whether they’re married, single or single without a family, Beth El dues range from $192 to $2544 per year.
Although Benton and Seletz are eager to welcome new virtual members, not everyone is eligible to join. Virtual membership isn’t open to current Beth El members, and virtual members must live 100 miles or more from the congregation, Seletz said.
Virtual membership underscores the importance of synagogue membership, Benton said.
“We have had people who during the High Holidays joined us virtually and want to make a donation,” she said. “This goes beyond.” And, she added, Beth El leadership wanted to make clear “we aren’t leaving the people we’ve connected with virtually behind.”
Benton said she’s aware of other congregations nationwide that have sought to increase participation during the pandemic, and said Beth El’s innovation reflects what’s best for the congregation moving forward. While at this point in the pandemic, in-person religious services are returning to many congregations across the country, virtual options remain at many institutions.
Although virtual membership offers a means to engage more formally with a synagogue, its future may not be promising. Americans’ participation in religious services has been declining “over the past two decades,” according to Gallup — since well before the pandemic.
With a recognition that “most U.S. Jews don’t go to synagogue,” rabbis and other organizational leaders have tried to innovate, according to the Pew Research Group in its report on Jewish Americans in 2020.
While virtual engagement became ubiquitous in non-Orthodox congregations during the pandemic, Eric Yoffie, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, decried the use of Zoom as a long-term substitute for in- person prayer.
In an article for Brandeis University, Yoffie wrote, “Zoom Judaism is wonderfully convenient, but alas, it is also, ultimately, religiously unfulfilling and terribly isolating.”
Although virtual membership can fill certain voids, neither Seletz nor Benton see it displacing traditional membership at the suburban synagogue.
“I don’t see us moving away from the in-person model as our primary model,” Seletz said.
“It’s just another way to expand the reach of Beth El,” Benton said.
It’s too early to measure the success of virtual memberships — Beth El just unveiled the program — but Benton said she’s already had “several serious inquiries” from people who have been active in the virtual community throughout the pandemic and also “some folks who have come out of the woodwork.”
Seletz, who grew up at Beth El, said she appreciates that a certain demographic may be drawn to Beth El’s virtual membership. She lived away from Pittsburgh for 30 years, and during that time, found other congregations that filled many of her needs, but nothing matched Beth El, she said. Had she not moved back to Pittsburgh as an adult, “I would be the kind of person who would be a virtual member,” Seletz said.
It’s that sense that keeps her optimistic about Beth El’s newest membership tier.
“If people are looking for that taste of the Pittsburgh Jewish community, this is a way they can connect with that warmth and friendliness they might not be finding elsewhere,” she said. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.