By Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Rabbi Julia Weisz, and Rabbinic Intern Adrianne Pasternak
Craving personal connection to actual people? Missing in-person contact with your clergy and community? Consider Drive Thru Judaism as an antidote to quarantined community.
When the quarantine compelled synagogues to cancel in-person gatherings, Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, California) pivoted. No stranger to disrupting our own synagogue norms to ensure we are more Kehillat Netflix than Beit Blockbuster, our leadership piloted Drive Thru Judaism, a series of poignant experiences that, while keeping people safely in their cars, uplifted our quarantined congregation, banishing loneliness and bringing Jewish spiritual sustenance to a community in quarantine.
Drive Thru Judaism brought the community to the synagogue for personal connection, ritual observance, social action, and individual blessings with clergy: Jewish meaning, while no one got out of their cars.
Some events were multi-day deals: the pre-High Holy Day event unfolded over four distinct days, and SOVA Sundays began as a two day food collection. Others – Sukkot Drive Thru-Lav and the Living Torah Car Rally – were single day pop up experiences. At each volunteers’ temperatures were checked, participation was documented in case of future contact tracing needs, and physical distancing was monitored and maintained.
The unexpected payoff: More than 86% of our households participated in at least one Drive Thru Judaism event. Half participated in two or more.
4 Drive Thru Experiences
We debuted four events from Elul through Simchat Torah:
- High Holy Day (HHD) Essentials Bag Pick Up and Drive Thru Blessings
- SOVA Sundays Food Collections
- Drive Thru-lav Sukkot Celebration
- Living Torah Car Rally (for Simchat Torah)
HHD Essentials Bag Pick Up and Drive Thru Blessings
Missing each other while missing the shul, over 86% of our congregants participated, picking up prayerbooks (machzorim) and High Holy Day Essentials Bags, and enjoying individualized blessing with a rabbis. Volunteers smiled and schmoozed into car windows (socially distanced and masked, of course), ensuring everyone knew how to sign onto services, make their Mikdash M’at (sacred space at home), and prepare for holiness by using the reflection pages in the included Prayer Supplement. A congregant-artist’s Shiviti for their wall and a blow up DIY Tashlich beach ball were among the giveaway items. Family Service Activity Bags and Kesher (religious school) Monthly Materials Boxes were available also. We set aside a special day for non-congregants to drive through for personalized welcome and attention, and also snail-mailed the Essential Bags to distant congregants.
6 Elements of Engagement
Each Drive Thru Judaism experience harnessed intense congregational creativity combined with significant silo-busting idea-sharing thru professional networks over Facebook. The experiences incorporated most of these engagement elements:
- Warm Welcome, masked but meaningful, upon entering the synagogue parking lot
- Clear Signage, directing traffic in an organized way, taking the anxiety out of actually showing up
- Ritual Enactment, from Sukkot’s lulav and etrog shaking to Simchat Torah’s Witnessed Unrolling of our Sacred Scrolls
- Social Action, because the study of Torah and reengagement with ritual necessarily must bind us to repairing the world
- Personalized Blessing by Clergy, whose see-thru masks allowed the smiles to shine amidst the sharing of sacred sentiments of hope and prayer
- Great Give-aways, so everyone left with a remember a meaningful momento of our holy time together
Drive Thru-lav Sukkot Celebration
Warmly welcomed at the entrance, carloads came thru the parking lot, stopping to learn about and say blessings for the lulav and etrog as they were shaken. Participants dropped off donations of blankets and warm jackets for the unhoused, greeting Pastor Kathy Huck of About My Father’s Business, which ministers to the local unhoused. A congregant-engineer designed and built our “Shake Shack,” a sukkah big enough for a truck to drive thru. Volunteers decorated it with traditional schach (palm branches) up top, pictures of smiling Or Ami partners on the walls, and blessing bears on which waiting carloads wrote thanks for their bounty. A rabbi greeted each carload in our “Shake Shack,” explaining its significance, and reminding everyone that we can address the shakiness in our world by caring for others, voting our values, and reminding everyone we know to vote also. Participants left with a Sukkot Shake Shack keychain and a personal invitation to the Living Torah Car Rally for Simchat Torah.
5 Keys to Keep Them Coming
These Drive Thru Judaism events enjoyed higher levels of participation because we planned for:
- Personal calls to participate: Volunteer and staff teams organized to personally invite people to participate
- Active social media and email campaigns: Our team blanketed our communication channels both with clear explanations of what would happen and why they would want to participate
- Private Moments with Clergy: The promise of a few precious moments with the clergy enticed many to attend and return.
- Shared videos: After each Drive Thru Judaism experience we promoted videos and pictures to drive excitement for subsequent events
- Synergistic Marketing: Before participants left an event, they received an invitation – verbal and on paper – to the next event.
Living Torah Car Rally
Using an online Google map, carfuls of congregants visited eight homes to witness Torah scenes played out on front lawns. In one place, Moses thanked God for giving the Ten Commandments, hearing a Shofar blast from a rooftop angel in response, while on the other side of the lawn an Israelite bowed down to a golden calf (spray-painted rocking horse). At another location, (a stuffed animal renamed) Jacob lay in a sleeping bag with a rock as his pillow, while beside him on a ladder angelic white sheets seemed to be climbing down and up it. At each parasha location, young participants received a themed prize (LEGO pencils at the Mishkan Making House; hot rock candies at the Burning Bush).
Back at the synagogue, cars were received by Moses at the edge of the Promised Land (a projected map of Israel, complete with hanging honey jars and empty milk bottles). Moses sent them forth to see Torah scrolls unrolled and read at Deuteronomy’s end and Genesis’ beginning, whereupon God welcomed them into a chaotic Tohu Vavohu light show, before intoning two words – Yehi Or (Let there be light) – to send them on a journey thru the six days of creation. At the seventh day station, participants received a warm Shabbat blessing from the Rabbi and a wrapped mini-challah. 245 people participated (real numbers), nearly doubling our usual Simchat Torah participation.
2 Unexpected Benefits
Collectively these events instilled a sense of connection and community that elevated the experience during online Holy Day services. They also breathed new life into tired rituals.
In many cases, these experiences led to
- Unexpected membership renewals (what we call “partnership”) by those who hadn’t yet renewed because, as one returning congregant said, “This event reminded me how much I needed this community.”
- Vastly increased High Holy Day appeal donations because, as one donor remarked, “We saw how creatively you worked to connect us all while keeping us safe, and we felt that connection.”
SOVA Sundays Food Collections
When COVID-19 killed our annual Yom Kippur food collection for the local SOVA Food Pantry, two teens stepped up and organized a drive thru Food Collection Drive. Instructing congregants to place their food bags in the trunk and pop it open when parked, and our people pulled the donations out. The collection surpassed previous years’ by over 1,000 pounds, testifying to the penetration of Torah’s teachings of caring for the vulnerable. Energized congregants agitated to continue this mitzvah and soon our monthly SOVA Sundays were born.
The Future of Drive Thru Judaism
Our Drive Thru Judaism experiences led our leaders, volunteers, and participants to feel pleased, proud, and proficient at building community and celebrating Judaism, while still staying true to our synagogue’s vision: to be a sanctuary of kindness, a safe Jewish community for today, your second home.
Plans are underway for a Chanukah Sufganiot/Jelly Donut Drive Thru and Candle Lighting as well as a Progressive Prayer Service led by our Madrichei Shira (youth songleaders), singing people through the Shabbat Service spread out along a parking lot drive thru route.
However long COVID-19 continues, Congregation Or Ami is committed to creatively creating community, celebrating Judaism, and driving our community to and through meaningful Jewish moments.
It took a village…
to create each Drive Thru Judaism experience. We thank:
Rabbi Julia Weisz and Rabbinic Intern Adrianne Pasternak who dreamt up and crafted the Sukkot and Simchat Torah experiences.
Congregation Or Ami’s amazing office staff – Lisette Tuohy, Jenny Mazzella, Susie Stark – who designed and effectuated each detail
Our youth engagement coordinator/communications manager Andrew Fromer and our talented faculty for bringing life and energy to each event
Susie Gruber, our Henaynu Chair, for dreaming up the High Holy Day Essentials Bag and collecting a cadre of volunteers to assemble and hand them out
Inspiration also came from the Facebook Groups of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Union for Reform Judaism and its Religious Action Center, and Dreaming Up High Holy Days 2020.