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Synagogues consider stages of reopening
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Synagogues consider stages of reopening

During pandemic, safety is the guiding principle

Congregants socially distance in the parking lot of Beth El for Shabbat services on Friday, June 23. Beginning this month, all services are held indoors. Courtesy Beth El
Congregants socially distance in the parking lot of Beth El for Shabbat services on Friday, June 23. Beginning this month, all services are held indoors. Courtesy Beth El

Clergy and leaders are balancing spiritual and pragmatic issues as they consider phased reopenings of their shuttered synagogues. As the pandemic continues, they are evaluating modifications to ventilation systems, analyzing spaces to determine safe occupancy within social distancing requirements, and establishing rules to maintain safety for those entering the buildings. At the same time, many are exploring ways to continue to create meaningful religious experiences via video conferencing platforms, especially on the High Holidays (see “Creativity to shape ‘radically different’ High Holidays).

Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor began holding a daily minyan and Friday night services on site the week of June 22. Held in the social hall, it’s limited to 20 participants, with social distancing, masks, and the use of hand sanitizer required. People are asked to sign up ahead of time; drop-ins are permitted if numbers allow and if they provide information for possible contact tracing.

Beth El’s Rabbi Jay Kornsgold told NJJN they started with weekday minyans at the Conservative shul because “the goal is to get people in and out,” with “no hanging out,” as is typical on Shabbat.

Randall Brett, president of The Jewish Center in Princeton, struck a cautionary note, shared by others as they consider phased reopenings. “The reality is that so much of this is unknown,” he told NJJN.

The Jewish Center was scheduled to hold online member meetings this week, followed by a congregational survey to determine “interest and willingness to return to the building,” according to a July 1 email from Brett to members.

The first of four phases, developed by the synagogue’s Safety and Security Committee, will limit the number of people in the building to 25, with no more than 10 in a single room.

In addition, barriers are being fabricated to protect the clergy.

“We are now trying to get us open for some services for some people sooner rather than later,” Brett said. A starting point is likely to be the Sunday and Wednesday morning minyans. “We will probably also give preference to people who are saying Kaddish, because they need to be there with a live congregation in order to feel complete in doing that.”

One critical issue is the effectiveness of ventilation systems in filtering out the virus and bringing in sufficient fresh air. Technologies use either ultraviolet light or especially dense filters. But installation can be costly, and bringing in fresh air can be problematic: The sanctuary at Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville, for example, has no windows or doors to the outside, and opening doors and windows in the social hall has security implications. “It is much more complex than people think,” said the Conservative synagogue’s Rabbi Benjamin Adler.

Synagogues are also strategizing about how many individuals and family groups can fit into their prayer spaces while observing the six-foot distancing requirements. Adler noted that “the health office says six feet is good, but not a guarantee, and people sometimes encroach.” He wondered if a specification of 12 feet apart might be required to actually achieve the proper separation.

Brett pointed to another complexity: how to define a family unit that can sit together. At the Jewish Center through the end of August, Brett said, “This will be strictly limited to a family’s household — not grandkids who don’t live with you or cousins and aunts and uncles.”

He said that people with health conditions and those 65 and older will be encouraged “to stay away for a while.” People will need to preregister, and temperature checks will be held at the door. Masks will be required.

To limit the spread of the virus through aerosols, Kornsgold said, they will “not encourage any kind of singing,” except for prayer leaders, who mostly face the ark. Congregants will not come to the bima for honors, and aliyot will be chanted from the pews. People will be encouraged to bring their own siddurim, kipot, and tallitot.

Adler said that before people are permitted to enter Adath Israel, they plan to purchase face coverings to “make sure everyone is wearing a good mask,” as well as thermometers and hand sanitizer. A registration system will be set up so that “if something happens, we can do contact tracing.”

On-line services at Adath Israel will continue, Adler said, because not everyone is comfortable with coming to the building, and in-person services will be shortened because duration is a factor in transmission.

Rabbi Aaron Gaber of Conservative Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown, Pa., said that although Bucks County is going into the “green phase,” easing most restrictions, his synagogue has set no date for reopening. Regular shul-goers, he said, “are not pushing to come back into the building at this time because we are all still very concerned about what will happen with Covid-19,” adding that many congregants say they will return only after there is a vaccine. And Zoom services are drawing four times as many people for Friday night services, with 60-80 attending.

At Har Sinai Temple, in Pennington, they “are taking a conservative approach,” said Lewis Dauer, president of the Reform congregation; “the general consensus is that people are not ready to come back.”

Rabbi Jordan Goldson, who just began his tenure at Har Sinai, said, “It’s challenging to come to a place where we can’t all come together.” So he envisions using the outdoors to safely meet with congregants. “We are thinking of putting a tent or sukkah outside where people can meet with me and have a soft drink — like Moses in the Tent of Meeting,” he said.

That safety is paramount is evident. “As we reopen,” Brett wrote in a June 12 email to Jewish Center members, “it is important to remember that the virus that causes COVID-19 is still present in our community…. This makes reopening and interactions with large groups of people dangerous. Caution must be taken to keep our congregation safe.”

Echoing his fellow clergy members, Kornsgold said, “The number one thing is safety. We will do nothing that is not safe.”

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