There was a mixture of “ecstasy” and anxiety as many Orthodox synagogues here — along with a handful of Conservative congregations — began reopening over the last three weeks. But the services are generally shorter and out of doors, there are no lengthy sermons, no kiddush, congregants must bring their own prayer books, tallit and tefillin — and they must wear masks at all times.
“And here’s the most shocking thing — no one is talking during the service,” said Charles Gross of Congregation Ohab Zedek, a Modern Orthodox synagogue on the Upper West Side. “I’m sure the rabbi is thinking, ‘How can I keep this up after the pandemic?’”
But, he insisted, “we are all happy to be back in shul.” For now, while New York City is still in Phase One of reopening, congregants are gathering in an outdoor space that holds room for 10 worshippers, the maximum allowed, situated 10 feet apart. (When it rains, they daven in the sanctuary, as they do for the Shabbat.)
Throughout the region, with New York State recording the lowest daily death and hospitalization rates since the pandemic hit, observant Jews have been gathering for socially distanced backyard minyans, this time with the blessing of their local rabbis. Synagogue parking lots are hosting services with chairs spread a requisite six feet apart. When they do move indoors, there are a host of restrictions.
The need for precautions was made clear at Ohab Zedek when “one of the congregants was diagnosed with the Covid virus” after he had attended one of the services, Gross recalled. Gross said that upon hearing the news, he ran out and got tested for the virus. He tested negative.
“I think the precautions we are taking are working,” Gross said. “The services are held outside and the chance of the virus spreading is very minute. … We are all happy to be back in shul, but it is important that we are all taking the proper precautions. Pekuach nefesh [saving a life] is very important.”
Ohab Zedek’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Allen Schwartz, said the person who tested positive has had no symptoms and that at the direction of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “we washed everything down and everyone was informed.” Despite the scare, Rabbi Schwartz said there was a sense of “ecstasy” in getting back to in-person prayer.
Above and Beyond
To help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, L.I., has instituted what is arguably the strictest protocol. Congregants must first register online for the specific Shabbat service. They must also state how they are feeling and if they have had either the Covid-19 test or the antibody test. If they have had neither, they are not admitted.
Congregants must come in through the same entrance and have their temperature checked. Everyone must then wash their hands for a full 20 seconds. A security guard is posted at the entrance to ensure that everyone complies. Everyone must wear a mask at all times and stay a minimum of six feet from others. Those who arrive without having pre-registered must provide their name and phone number before being admitted so that a contact tracer can call later in case of exposure.
“Our medical team decided to go above and beyond the state guidelines to make the congregation feel even more secure and comfortable,” explained Rabbi Marc Schneier.
The congregation held its first services since the pandemic on Shavuot three weeks ago with a minyan of 10. It increased the number to 50 when Long Island entered Phase Two of the state’s reopening scenario last week, which allows occupancy of 25 percent of the maximum. The rabbi said he can increase that number up to 250 in Phase Two but that he wants to increase it slowly in stages.
“We have the ability to open all sides of our building so that it becomes an outdoor facility” with a roof, Rabbi Schneier said.
Nevertheless, with the CDC reporting risks to older adults and people with underlying health issues, many congregants have opted to remain home rather than attend services. Avi Goldberg, president of the Young Israel of Great Neck, L.I., said about 60 percent of members who responded to a survey said “they would sit it out awhile.”
He estimated that 20 percent of his congregants are over the age of 65. “We are telling those over 65 or who have chronic health problems not to come,” he said.
The rabbi of one Orthodox congregation who is himself over the age of 65 said he has told his congregants not to expect him at his reopened synagogue.
“They are expecting a second wave and then a third wave, each one more virulent than the other,” he explained. “In the 1918 flu, [20 million to 50 million] people were killed and the deaths didn’t stop until the virus mutated into a less virulent form. … I understand the pressure to return, but ….”
At the Young Israel of Long Beach (L.I.), those wishing to attend a minyan must register in advance, complete a health form and sign a release to protect the synagogue from being sued in the event the congregant contracts Covid-19.
The synagogue is holding services inside on Shabbat and outdoors on weekdays in its rear parking lot. There are no restroom facilities when services are held outside. Only one worshipper may use a restroom stall before it is cleaned.
Thus far, the service has been open to men only, but Stuart Austin, a board member, said they hope to reopen the women’s section this Shabbat.
He noted that the Torah reader made all the ceremonial blessings to keep congregants from gathering at the lectern.
At the Hampton Synagogue, Adam Weinstein noted that congregants who are called to recite such blessings “stand at their seats and recite the blessing without approaching the Torah.”
Kiddush, the social collation that usually follows services, has been eliminated on Shabbat. But as congregants left the Hampton Synagogue, Weinstein said “someone wearing a mask and gloves handed everyone individually wrapped packages from the Beach Bakery. One week they handed out a piece of cheese cake, the next a chocolate blintz, and the following Shabbat there was a chocolate chip cookie.”
Also opening for Shavuot were a number of Chabad synagogues on Long Island, but Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, who oversees the Island’s 38 Chabad centers, said “people did not come out in droves.”
“We are also discouraging those over 70 from attending, and hope that those who are in their 60s who come are healthy and strong,” he said.
Carl Talesnick, a board member of Chabad of Mid Suffolk in Commack, L.I., said that before opening the synagogue was professionally disinfected. But he said it didn’t rain and the service was held on the deck outside “using socially distanced chairs.”
“We were done in an hour,” he said. “All we did basically was the Torah service. … And when we left, the rabbi’s wife gave everyone a slice of cheese cake to take home.”
Among the Conservative synagogues reopening is the Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, L.I., which will be holding its third Shabbat service this weekend. Joel Levenson, its associate rabbi, said everyone must register in advance and that it would be capping the number of attendees at 45 this week. It restricted the number to 20 last week and 10 the prior week. The maximum under phase two will be 60.
Everyone entering will have his or her temperature checked and those who have not pre-registered will be denied admission, he said. But unlike the Orthodox services, Rabbi Levenson said these are complete services that run about two-and-half hours and include a sermon.