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Synagogues Plan for a New Year Like No Other
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Synagogues Plan for a New Year Like No Other

Covid-19 is forcing hard choices for the High Holy Days, from Zoom services to limited seating.

A packed house at Central Synagogue on the East Side. The sanctuary will likely not look like this for the High Holidays. Centralsynagogue.org
A packed house at Central Synagogue on the East Side. The sanctuary will likely not look like this for the High Holidays. Centralsynagogue.org

On the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, in this year of the plague, there’s likely to be a gaping spiritual hole in the worship experience, one that no Zoom screen will be able to fill.

Synagogues across the country have begun forming committees to develop options for September’s High Holy Day services that are in compliance with state and local directives and the suggestions of medical advisory panels.

Some are considering reopening with limited attendance. Others are already assuming that people will worship at home and, depending on the movement and the rabbi, tuning in via Zoom.

But one thing is already clear: This will not be a typical Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur.

“It’s going to be very sad,” said Steven Bayme, the American Jewish Committee’s director of Contemporary Jewish Life. “The whole concept of social distancing runs very counter to the meaning of being a Jew in 21st-century America. The things we are so used to sharing with others will likely fall by the wayside. … Being a Jew is about being with others.”

Rabbi Alan Lucas, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights, L.I., agreed, noting: “The most crowded part of the shul is the lobby, where everybody is standing and saying ‘Hi.’ … There will be a lot of challenges this year.”

He said his congregation is considering having “multiple services with different experiences available to people — both watching at home and live.”

But Rabbi Lucas said he doesn’t want to see a repeat of what happened in the days before New York State was ordered locked down by the governor and all synagogues were closed.

“We had moved our daily minyan into the main sanctuary so that we had 20 people in a room that could accommodate 400,” he recalled. “But that proved to be an inducement for those who should not have come [because of their age and for medical reasons] to come. I realized that if I did not have the service they wouldn’t be tempted. We have to be careful not to recreate that dilemma.”

Even if synagogues are given the green light to open, Rabbi Susan Elkodsi, spiritual leader of Long Island’s Malverne Jewish Center, said she is not sure if her synagogue would open its doors but rather continue with services on Zoom.

“I am anticipating that even if we are allowed to gather it would not be in the interest of pikuach nefesh [the Jewish value of saving a life], especially with an older congregation,” she said, explaining that most of her congregation’s 30 families are in their 70s.

But even if livestreaming and Zoom “provide a High Holy Day experience, it might not fulfill the needs of some regarding their Jewish identity and connection — and that is something we have to think about,” according to Rabbi Stewart Vogel, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “Can there be a balance between being there in person and a virtual community? And is virtual a threat to the in-person?”

As Bayme described the challenges, alternatives need to be found even in the Orthodox community.

“The synagogue remains central as a pillar of community, and the challenge will be to provide synagogue programs and services without violating the formal restrictions imposed by the coronavirus,” Bayme said.

In outlining new guidelines Monday for reopening businesses, Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not provide a specific timeline but offered a series of public health milestones that must be met and that will vary by region. The guidelines did not specify houses of worship, although theaters and other crowded entertainment venues are designated as the last places to fully reopen under the plan.

Although Reform and many Conservative synagogues are preparing to livestream and Zoom their services if they are not permitted or advised to reopen, Orthodox synagogues and some traditional Conservative synagogues will not, according to Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. This would be consistent with Shabbat and holiday restrictions on using electrical devices and connecting with technology.

The Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, L.I., is a traditional Conservative synagogue that has not conducted Sabbath or Passover services during the lockdown because it does not livestream or Zoom. But its associate rabbi, Joel Levinson, said that with the High Holidays approaching, “we have to think how to keep our people together and connected to the traditions and rituals” if synagogues must remain closed.

“We are just starting to acknowledge that we have to think carefully about this,” he said High Holiday services.

In addition to “the values of pikuach nefesh and shmirat hanefesh [to preserve a life],” Rabbi Levinson said, “we want to preserve Jewish souls and community. So we will have to do some very serious reflection on what we can do.”

Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Ohr in Bellmore, L.I., said her Conservative congregation never used livestreaming before but installed it when the synagogue was ordered closed because of the coronavirus.

“Before Shabbat we do a Zoom service, which is interactive and lets us see each other’s faces,” she said.

Screening Congregants

If synagogues are allowed to reopen, said Rabbi Arthur Schneier, spiritual leader of Park East Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation in Manhattan, “it will be a challenge” deciding which congregants will be assigned seats in the sanctuary and which will be assigned to parallel services.

“To give everyone equal treatment is the most important thing,” he said of his High Holy Day congregation of 2,500.

Rabbi Potasnik said some Orthodox congregations are considering renting large auditoriums to accommodate members if their own synagogues cannot hold everyone while still maintaining social distancing. Others are considering holding several services in succession to accommodate everyone. He said a conference will be held soon exploring ways to approach the holidays with and without technologies.

For those synagogues whose congregants will be praying at home, some are considering making a recording that congregants can listen to before the holiday to enrich their experience. At The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, L.I., the cantor and professional choir will be recording all of the High Holiday services in the coming weeks for broadcast on the holidays on JBS, the Jewish Broadcasting Service, according to Rabbi Marc Schneier, the synagogue’s spiritual leader.

“I am not advocating that anyone turn on a TV, but in this age of smart TV they can program it to turn on at a specific time and there would be no violation of halacha,” he said.

Should the synagogue be able to reopen, Rabbi Schneier said it can accommodate up to 200 with social distancing. He said he expects many congregants to remain home because of the coronavirus. And he said he is considering asking those who do come to provide documentation that they either do not have Covid-19 or have the antibodies to prove they already had it.

Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, stressed that the “halachic view has always been that the priority is to protect your life, and if you are risking your life by going to services, you should not go.”

That same advice was echoed by Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, the incoming joint CEO of the Conservative movement’s congregational and rabbinic arms. He wrote in an article in eJewish Philanthropy that before reopening, Jewish institutions must make health and safety a priority. It “should make us among the last to return to physically proximate activity, rather than the first,” he said.

In an interview, Rabbi Blumenthal said that in addition to livestreaming or pre-recording programs, “some congregations may try to meet in small groups and empower lay leaders to facilitate various kinds of experiences either in person or online.”

The Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan is planning to arrange for its members to reserve time during the 10 days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur to come to the synagogue with their families and offer a prayer before the open ark.

“This is one of the most meaningful parts of the High Holy Days during the Neilah,” the final service of Yom Kippur, said Rabbi Rachel Ain, the congregation’s spiritual leader.

The pandemic, noted Bayme, “has reminded us of the precariousness of human life. As the Unetaneh Tokef liturgy puts it for the High Holy Days, we do not know who will live and who will die. Nonetheless, the message of Judaism remains fundamentally an optimistic one. As we enter a New Year, even under these dire conditions, we look forward to better times for all.”

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