On the afternoon of June 1, Mike Cumberton, a maintenance worker at Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston, was using bright orange spray paint to draw squares on the parking lot pavement behind the synagogue. The 40 squares, each carefully measured six feet apart, will serve as the Modern Orthodox congregation’s new outdoor “sanctuary” for its daily minyan, set to restart on June 4. Worshippers (no more than 25 for now, per current New Jersey guidelines) will have to wear masks and stay in their respective square for the duration of the service. Swaying while praying is okay, but three steps forward and back for the Amidah? Only if you can stay in your square, according to Rabbi Elie Mischel.
Being the decision-maker on this issue has weighed heavily on Mischel. He hears from people who have wanted to open sooner and understands their perspective, but “they’re not the ones with the responsibility, and they don’t have it on their heads if, God forbid, somebody gets sick,” he told NJJN during a phone interview.
Mischel also worries that congregants will inadvertently get too close to each other. “People forget. They’re good people, and they want to follow the rules, but then they’re not six feet away from each other, and the mask slips off their nose and it’s not OK,” he said. “Taking the community perspective has made me a little more humble and much more careful.”
The Vaad Harabonim of MetroWest NJ announced on May 26 that synagogues affiliated with the organization — provided they adhere to strict guidelines enacted to prevent the further spread of Covid-19 — could resume holding limited prayer services on June 4. Their decision closely follows the framework of the May 8 guidelines issued jointly by the Orthodox Union (OU) and the Rabbinical College of America (RCA). Included among the 13 principles outlined in the OU/RCA statement is that before holding services, synagogues must wait two weeks after governors allow gatherings of more than 10 people, as long as there is no subsequent uptick in cases. June 4 is two weeks after May 22, the date New Jersey began allowing gatherings of up to 25 people outside.
Suburban Torah is one of 10 Orthodox synagogues affiliated with the Vaad Harabonim of MetroWest NJ planning to hold outdoor, in-person minyans beginning June 4. Some, like Congregation Ohr Torah in West Orange, are following a similar pattern as Suburban Torah. They are marking off spots in the parking lot, and everyone will bring their own chair and siddur and will keep the same spot all week, according to Rabbi Marc Spivak.
For both of the respective congregations, one person will be responsible for every aspect of the Torah reading on Mondays and Thursdays: As Mischel described, one person will be tasked with bringing the Torah scroll outside from the ark inside the sanctuary, reading the portion, and will then be honored with all three aliyot as well as hagbah and galilah (raising and wrapping the Torah back up) before returning it into the building.
Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange will begin to hold simultaneous community backyard minyans on Friday night, June 5. While the OU/RCA guidelines specifically advise against private backyard services — where social distancing cannot be properly monitored or controlled — it does not prohibit those that are organized and authorized by synagogue leadership, and “where compliance [with social distancing measures] is properly monitored and maintained.”
A few are planning to open at the same time as other congregations but weren’t ready to share exact details when speaking to NJJN. “We are considering a bunch of options and we really don’t know what we are doing yet. Sorry!” wrote Rabbi Chaim Marcus of Congregation Israel in Springfield.
Some Orthodox congregations not under the Vaad are making their own decisions on when to reopen. The Elizabeth community affiliated with the Jewish Educational Center will hold limited-attendance outdoor minyanim beginning June 4, according to Rabbi Elazar Teitz, who said they’ve been coordinating with the Vaad. But the Mount Freedom Jewish Center, affiliated with the progressive Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, will remain closed for the time being.
“The numbers suggest that we are still at the peak,” said Rabbi Menashe East. “Until we see declination of total cases, not just fatalities, it’s positively dangerous to open our parking lots.”
Several rabbis who spoke with NJJN said they were feeling pressure from some congregants to open earlier. However, “when there’s even a doubt of pikuach nefesh, of saving a life, the doubt always takes precedence,” said Rabbi Mendel Solomon of Ahavath Torah: Chabad at Short Hills, where the details of the outdoor minyan are still being worked out.
For non-Orthodox congregations, the calculus is different, as a daily minyan is not usually the main focus of their religious practices. Rather, liberal congregations often prioritize larger Shabbat gatherings, which, with some exceptions in the Conservative movement, they have maintained via Zoom and found to be effective. And among those that do offer a daily minyan, liberal rabbis have permitted the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish online, whereas the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis disagree with the practice.
Even so, some Conservative and Reform synagogues have begun to discuss holding in-person services and other events, but there’s less pressure to move forward quickly. Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains contemplated holding a Friday night “tailgate” Shabbat service, but decided against it. “With current restrictions, people would have to remain in cars with windows closed. It is neither feasible nor safe,” wrote Rabbi Joel Abraham.
B’nai Shalom in West Orange and Temple B’nai Or in Morristown are both considering limited openings. Still, B’nai Or is struggling with how they would limit attendance, and are asking, “Is the experience of being together, with a limited number of people, socially distant from others, wearing masks, maybe not singing (?), better than an online prayer experience?” Rabbi Michael Satz wrote in an email to NJJN.
Only one liberal synagogue that was in touch with NJJN, Temple Shalom in Succasunna, has a plan to open immediately. Temple Shalom will hold its first outdoor service on June 5. Chairs will be placed six feet apart for the family service, which is limited to the first 25 people who sign up; the rest of the congregation can watch via livestream.
“We are flattening the curve and the people are more diligent in maintaining the basic precautions, such as wearing the mask and keeping the distance, [so] I feel more comfortable to be able to open the synagogue for the services,” said Rabbi Inna Serebro-Litvak.
Responses from the “Hell, no” camp regarding opening were blunt and to the point. Rabbi Dr. Andy Dubin of the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey in Washington said simply, “Absolutely not.” And Rabbi Andrew Sklarz of Temple Beth Am of Parsippany wrote in an email to NJJN, “We are certainly not considering anything as early as June 4 other than Zoom. For everyone’s safety and protection.”
Rabbi David Vaisberg of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston wondered what the benefit is of creating a service experience that only a select group of people could attend. The current model would exclude children and at-risk individuals, no one could sing for fear of droplets spreading the virus, and the service would be focused on those in the room, which could lessen the weightiness for worshippers watching remotely.
“Is that the experience the congregation is waiting for?” asked Vaisberg. “Would it really move them? Or would it create more conflict?”
And he’s worried about putting people at risk. Obviously he’s looking forward to when they can finally reopen, he said. “But we’re doing this to live another day.”