Despite a green light from the California Department of Public Health that houses of worship can open their doors with county approval, most Bay Area synagogues aren’t rushing to do so.
In interviews with several synagogue leaders, the consensus was that it is wiser to move cautiously.
“We’re certainly not looking to rush to reopen,” said David Goldman, executive director of Congregation Emanu-El, a large Reform synagogue in San Francisco where more than 200 people ordinarily might show up for a Shabbat service. “We’ll definitely be taking it slow, step-by-step.”
The state health department announced on May 25 that houses of worship could open to congregants. The state guidance “strongly” recommends continuing virtual services. If a county approves a reopening, attendance must be no more than 25 percent of building capacity or 100 individuals, whichever is lower.
The day after the announcement, San Francisco County officials said the current shelter-in-place order would remain in effect until further notice.
That aligns with the thinking at Congregation Sherith Israel, another large Reform synagogue in the city that is wary of reopening.
“It’s far easier to be cautious and be slow than to rush ahead and create an environment that is harmful,” said executive director Gordon Gladstone.
Gladstone mentioned incidents around the United States that have led Sherith Israel to tread carefully, including a church in Texas that reopened in early May and recently saw an outbreak of coronavirus cases, including its own priest, who later died. And in Germany, a single church service on May 10 led to over 100 cases, even though congregants were social distancing and the building was disinfected.
“While everyone would love to get back together in person, every anecdote [about] what’s happened in other congregations have given us pause,” said Gladstone.
S.F. Congregation Adath Israel’s Rabbi Joel Landau has been doing some preliminary calculations to prepare for the synagogue’s opening, including going through the sanctuary with a tape measure to determine how many congregants will fit with social distancing in place (about 35 people, he said). Another consideration is whether to leave the synagogue’s front door open — it could help circulate air, but is potentially a security risk.
“Different people have different perspectives,” Landau said.
Even though he’s optimistic that the Modern Orthodox shul will reopen at some point, Landau doesn’t know when that will happen.
In Oakland, Rabbi Gershon Albert said Beth Jacob Congregation would be following guidelines from the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, which suggest that shuls can open two weeks after local governments “have allowed public gatherings of more than ten persons, and have not seen upticks in disease.”
In a message to congregants at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek, Rabbi Jennie Chabon said that while the Reform synagogue would work within the new guidelines to eventually reopen, at this point “there are too many complicating factors that would not only endanger our community if we were to open the sanctuary too early, but would also make our return to in-person prayer just a shadow of what we all want it to be.”
Rabbi Chai Levy of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley said that she and her task force at the Conservative synagogue would continue discussing what is needed to reopen but that it would happen “slowly.”
And in Palo Alto, executive director Ellen Bob of independent Congregation Etz Chayim said she would be meeting with colleagues soon to map out a potential plan. Her remarks echoed those of other synagogue leaders.
“My instinct is to move slowly and reopen as evidence shows it is safe to do so,” Bob said.
According to the state’s guidelines for reopening, houses of worship must implement a Covid-19 prevention plan, train employees about the virus and enforce social distancing and disinfection protocols. The guidelines also strongly advise that face coverings be worn and that staff members have health screenings before beginning their shifts.
At least one San Francisco Jewish house of worship has already opened its doors: the Schneerson Center, which has hosted very small gatherings, despite the city’s current directive.
On May 22, Rabbi Bentzion Pil opened the doors of the primarily Russian-speaking Chabad shul for Shabbat after President Donald Trump deemed houses of worship as “essential” and said he would “override” governors who defied him.
“Synagogue is essential and should be open,” said Pil, who reported that 10 or 11 people came to the Friday service, with social distancing implemented and masks worn. An older worshipper, Pil said, was guided to sit outside of the synagogue to avoid close contact with others.
San Francisco Interfaith Council executive director Michael Pappas said that despite houses of worship remaining closed, faith leaders have told him uniformly that virtual attendance is up, as are donations.
Pappas predicted that in the main, people will continue to be hesitant to leave their homes for services.
“I think online worship is going to continue,” Pappas said. “I don’t think people are doing to rush back to their houses of worship.”
North of the Bay Area, the independent Mendocino Coast Jewish Community reported it would continue to hold services over Zoom and that reopening would happen at a slow pace.
“We have no plans to move back into our little shul anytime soon,” board member Susan Tubbesing said. “We are an aging community and are in no hurry to put any of our members at risk. We do not have a date when we hope to reopen.”
On May 22, Mendocino County health officials linked an outbreak of Covid-19 cases to a Mother’s Day service at a church in Redwood Valley, where nine congregants tested positive. Officials in the widely dispersed county had not determined whether it would allow houses of worship to reopen. As of May 26, the county had 21 cases and no deaths.
Rabbi Pam Frydman of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California said that the state’s guidance should be adopted by synagogues according to the “composition” of the community, such as the age of its congregants.
“I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all solution,” Frydman said. “We want to be sensitive to the needs of all of our rabbis and counties.”