For most American Jews, attending shul means greeting fellow congregants with hugs and handshakes, scooping up a communal prayerbook, kippah or tallit, and filing into shared pews or auditorium seating. It means planting kisses on ritual objects like mezuzot and Torah scrolls, and schmoozing over shared platters of smoked fish and pastries at Kiddush.
Much of this seems unthinkable now, as the highly contagious novel coronavirus has forced billions into their homes, led to strict shelter-in-place ordinances, and by necessity moved synagogue services — including weddings, bar mitzvahs and even funerals — online.
The Covid-19 global pandemic, which landed on Bay Area shores in early March (though may have been circulating earlier, experts say), has killed more than 73,000 in the U.S. and more than 250,000 around the world. Many experts believe a vaccine will not become available until mid-2021.
If and when some semblance of normal life resumes in the months ahead, synagogue life undoubtedly will be transformed. In conversations with a half-dozen Bay Area rabbis and synagogue administrators, the shul leaders agreed that they will need to be more careful and deliberate than most in their approach, and that it will take time and patience until the Jewish community can gather safely again.
“We’re talking about things that we’ve never had to consider before,” said Michael Kamler, executive director at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, who said the synagogue was considering safety measures such as signage to remind congregants (and staff) to wash hands frequently, cover their coughs and wear protective face coverings.
“It’s herculean when you start thinking of the details,” Kamler said. “Are you asking everyone to wear gloves when they use the prayerbooks? Or not using prayerbooks at all, and putting it up on a screen in the front of the room?”
While six Bay Area counties collectively relaxed shelter-in-place rules beginning May 4, allowing some outdoor activities and businesses to open, a full reopening is not on the table anytime soon. Six crucial criteria — including increased testing and contact-tracing capacity — have not yet been met. The current stay-home orders require synagogues and other places of worship to stay closed through the month.
California’s shelter-in-place regulations are among the strictest in the nation. In some Republican-led states, including Florida and Georgia, churches and synagogues have been deemed essential and allowed to remain open during the pandemic. But Jewish leaders, even in those states, have resisted the urge to bring their congregations together face-to-face.
In Texas, a group of about a dozen Orthodox rabbis wrote an open letter explaining why they would not be following Gov. Gregg Abbott’s call to ease social distancing restrictions.
“Religious communities, with their heavily social communal lives, are at greater risk for reinfection during this pandemic,” the letter published April 21 read. “It is premature to reopen shuls at this time.”
In California as elsewhere, many are aware that large gatherings of people will be among the last activities to be permitted.
Still, the hunger for connection is profound, synagogue leaders acknowledged.
“The hardest part continues to be that people can’t be with each other,” said Rabbi Corey Helfand, senior rabbi at Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. “I think people are grateful for any moments where we can come together, even in different and creative ways.”
The Conservative synagogue recently convened a six-person “medical task force,” made up of four synagogue leaders and two congregants who are physicians. At the beginning of the pandemic, the task force discussed strategies to deal with the emerging threat. On April 21 it held its first call “beginning the process of what reopening will look like,” Helfand said.
“We talked about … having appropriate sanitization in place, and most likely some kind of face-mask policy. And making sure we have a protocol for how people enter the building, whether checking temperatures or making sure people are properly gloved or masked,” he said. “As much as we yearn to be together, we want to make sure that we’re doing it thoughtfully.”
Some have suggested easing restrictions first for people who are at less risk for getting sick from Covid-19 — those under 65, and those without underlying chronic health conditions. But Helfand says he is personally uncomfortable with that strategy.
“Turning people away who want to be there … doesn’t feel sacred,” he said. “It doesn’t feel inclusive or welcoming.” For that reason, Helfand said the congregation should be prepared “for a slower process of re-entry and re-engaging in the same physical place for the spiritual world, than for other aspects of the world.”
The Jewish leaders who spoke with J. said they would be hewing closely to official guidelines in the weeks and months ahead, as well as consulting with experts, such as synagogue members who are medical professionals, to help interpret and implement those guidelines.
“I’m most comfortable following public authorities,” said Ellen Bob, executive director of Congregation Etz Chaim, a nondenominational, egalitarian synagogue in Palo Alto, “and then finding people who are smart about science in the congregation to help us implement those recommendations.”
Etz Chaim may have a head start on other institutions. During the early stages of the pandemic, before shelter-in-place orders went into effect, the shul held a bar mitzvah service with social distancing in place.
“We weren’t going to cancel at the last second. We had the chairs set up 6 feet away from each other,” Bob said. “I disinfected the handles on the Torah scroll.”
She anticipates more of that when the synagogue eventually reopens, a process she said would be “uneven.” She is eyeing a celebratory Simon & Garfunkel-themed service scheduled for May 29, possibly having musicians in the building and streaming the service to congregants.
“We’re planning as if we are going to do it all from home,” she said. “But we’re staying open to the idea that we can put some people together in a room.
“I have a 94-year-old mother. I’m not going to rush to bring her back to a sanctuary with a bunch of people.”
Like others, Bob has been pleasantly surprised at how meaningful certain services held over video conferencing can be, calling it “surprisingly compelling.” It may be one reason that synagogues feel less desperate to open their doors at the earliest possible opportunity.
On April 22, Bob attended a bris over Zoom, and was moved. “A couple of shot glasses were brought out to welcome the boy to the covenant,” she said. “I’m crying like I always do.”
Etz Chaim has a “Zoom team” of people who host events like Men’s Club meetings and Torah studies. Rabbi Chaim Koritzinsky even learned about proper lighting in order to stream virtual Shabbat services, “lunch and learn” and other events.
In Santa Rosa, Rabbi Mordecai Miller of Conservative Congregation Beth Ami said Zoom events had brought together congregants who had moved across the country.
“It crosses geographical boundaries,” he said. “It’s really remarkable.”
In Oakland, at Temple Beth Abraham, Rabbi Mark Bloom has been leading virtual services using a “multistream camera set-up” from the synagogue’s cavernous main sanctuary. He said once he and synagogue staff got into the rhythm of online services, talk of reopening seemed a distant, daunting task and now “is catching us by surprise.”
He wondered, for example, whether it would be safe to put out kippahs and prayer shawls for communal use, or whether the Conservative synagogue would ask people to bring their own.
One of his first priorities, he said, would be to make efforts to gather a minyan. During the pandemic, Bloom has not been able to run a halachic Torah service.
Considering the sanctuary’s size, it would not be too hard to gather 10 socially distanced adults. “The sanctuary seats 800 people,” he said. “Everyone can have two rows to themselves.”
Looming beyond synagogues’ late-summer plans are the High Holidays, which begin Sept. 18. During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many see their attendance skyrocket, sometimes tenfold or more. In sanctuaries, rented theaters and civic centers, hundreds sit cheek to jowl for hours on end, touching shared surfaces and using communal prayerbooks and other ritual objects.
The holidays certainly are on Bloom’s mind as he contemplates reopening. “We’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do for the High Holidays,” he said. “But we have no idea what [local officials] are going to require. Can we have 1,000 people? Or only 50?”
Rodef Sholom usually packs congregants into an auditorium at the Marin County Civic Center for the High Holidays.
“It holds about 2,200 on Erev Rosh Hashanah and Kol Nidre,” Kamler said. “And we fill it.”
Working with an executive committee, Kamler is “scenario-planning” how to handle services this year. He said he does not expect all those people to come, even if they legally could. The committee is considering streaming services from the auditorium, or perhaps holding services in the shul’s sanctuary with a limited number of congregants attending to maintain social distancing rules, and streaming that service to the rest of the community.
Kamler is turning for guidance to the Marin County Department of Public Health and the Union of Reform Judaism, a governing body for the Reform movement nationwide.
“No one has the perfect plan,” he said. “Hopefully we can learn from one another.”
Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon usually sees about 1,200 people at a host of synagogue offerings over the High Holidays. Rabbi Susan Leider said in order to maintain social distancing in the sanctuary, the synagogue is looking at adding more services throughout the day to enable smaller attendance at each one.
It is likely that face masks and social distancing of 6 feet will be required at the Conservative shul for the foreseeable future, Leider said. She and her colleagues have been doing some back-of-the-envelope geometry to figure out the sanctuary’s new capacity.
“We think it’s going to be 6 feet,” she said of spacing out seating. “But family units, or people cocooning together, will be able to sit together, which makes the calculations for using the space kind of complicated.
“I think all institutions are going to be exploring that,” she said. “Because there is such a desire to have people in the building — if we can do it legally and safely.”
Leider, who has convened with Christian colleagues on Zoom, said that everyone in the Marin faith community is trying to figure out best practices, and “nobody has a crystal ball.”
“The Jewish community is very resilient. The desire to want to assemble is strong,” she said. “If you do believe in God, God is looking down and smiling at that.”