a large room with four men in it praying very far apart
A morning prayer service at Chabad in Berkeley on June 28, 2020. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

‘No singing, no Kiddush, no nothing’: Chabads first to reopen for prayer services during pandemic

Despite getting the go-ahead from county health departments to hold small gatherings, most Bay Area synagogues remain closed to in-person services, amid concerns about the ongoing spread of Covid-19. Some shuls have even announced plans to forgo in-person High Holiday services in September in favor of Zoom gatherings.

But after California allowed houses of worship to reopen on May 25, followed by health officials in several counties, many local Chabad centers began holding pared-down, socially distanced prayer services.

Beginning Fourth of July weekend, a number of Modern Orthodox congregations followed suit, holding outdoor services with masks, social distancing, and a reservations system in place to control the number of attendees.

The services offer a glimpse into what synagogue-goers may come to expect in the however-distant future, when other Jewish denominations decide to open to in-person worship again.

The day after Alameda County relaxed its guidelines on religious gatherings June 19, the Chabad house of Berkeley, led by Rabbi Yehuda Ferris, held its first live service, drawing about 10 people.

“We viewed it as a trial balloon, to see if people would follow the rules,” Ferris said. “And yeah, they did.”

With cases rising in the state, on July 1 the California Department of Health released 14 pages of guidelines for places of worship. Attendance at indoor services must be limited to 25 percent of a room’s capacity, at a maximum of 100 people, and “singing and chanting activities” are not allowed. By propelling respiratory droplets, they “negate the risk-reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing,” the guidelines state.

Early on Sunday morning June 28, Ferris led morning prayer at the Chabad center, located in a storefront on University Avenue that used to sell healing crystals. Hand sanitizer, disposable masks and latex gloves sat at the front of the room near the kippahs. Chairs were amply spaced and signs read “SOCIAL DISTANCE: MAINTAIN 6 FT.”

Four other men trickled in for the service, including another Chabbad rabbi and his son, spreading out around the room.

Ferris, facing east toward Jerusalem, sang the prayers under his breath, his beard pouring out from under his blue surgical mask.

“You can understand people are a little bit scared to come,” he said.

Ferris said his chapel could accommodate about 10 to 12 people, based on its size. To circulate air in the room, oscillating fans were kept on the entire time, despite the chilly morning.

It’s a bit of a balancing act. People are very eager to get together.

Most congregants have been receptive to the new masking and social distancing rules, Ferris said. But some needed reminders of certain things, like making sure the mask stayed over the nose and mouth.

One man, a veteran of the Israeli military who said he fought terrorists in Lebanon, was irked by the mask requirement. “This is bulls–,” he said, snapping the mask against his face. He was in much more dangerous situations than this one, he felt. But Ferris insisted.

“Even though we’re not scientists, we have a healthy respect for Covid-19,” the rabbi said.

At the Chabad of the Greater South Bay in Palo Alto, Rabbi Yosef Levin has been holding unofficial services under a covered patio outside the center, since Santa Clara County issued guidelines allowing outdoor religious services on June 5.

That same day, the center hosted an informal Friday night service.

“No singing, no Kiddush, no nothing,” Levin said.

Attendance has been kept to 15 to 20 people, and the contingent is generally on the more religious side, Levin said.

“Usually we have 100 people wearing all kinds of clothes,” from different walks of life, Levin said. Now it’s mostly “15 to 20 religious men” wearing tefillin and tallit, and some observant women, too.

Everyone must wear a mask. Only a single household can touch the Torah, so instead of one person carrying the Torah, another wrapping it, and others planting symbolic kisses, the honor is only one family’s. Aliyahs, or blessings over the Torah, are done from 6 feet distant.

“These are rules that we insist on,” Levin said.

Dozens of Chabad centers, outposts of the global Chabad-Lubavitch movement, dot the Bay Area and stretch into rural parts of the state.

In Monterey, Pleasanton, Vacaville, Sunnyvale and Santa Rosa, the Chabad houses — which function as Jewish communal centers in addition to places of worship — have also been holding small prayer gatherings.

signs that say "stay six feet apart" sit out on a table with stacks of prayerbooks
Signs reminding people to maintain appropriate distance are spread around the room at Chabad in Berkeley. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

On June 5 Rabbi Mendel Wolvovsky of Sonoma County Chabad sent an enthusiastic email to his congregants: “Following the Sonoma County guidelines, we are very excited to be reopening our doors to better serve you!”

“It was kind of a soft opening,” Wolvovsky said about the first Shabbat service on June 6. “This week it’s a little more formal.”

He was told that an outdoor environment was preferred, but it was “easier to create a safe environment” indoors, he said, so the doors were kept open throughout the service.

Everyone wore masks, even the Torah reader and the rabbi, “including when I gave my sermon,” he said. And the shul was set up “in a way that people have 6 feet of separation between seats,” he added.

After more than three months of relative isolation, there was a palpable feeling of joy when people were finally allowed to come together again to celebrate Shabbat, Wolvovsky said.

“We were happy that we were permitted to do it. We saw that some people just needed it badly,” he said.

“It’s a bit of a balancing act. People are very eager to get together,” he said. “At the same time, everybody wants to know they’re protecting themselves, their community, and the broader community.”

More recently, some Modern Orthodox congregations in the area have reunited too, with outdoor services only.

Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland held an outdoor Friday evening minyan on July 3, using a private residence. Masks and social distancing were mandatory, and advance sign-ups limited the number of attendees. It was the synagogue’s first in-person service in 112 days, Rabbi Gershon Albert announced on Facebook.

Adath Israel in San Francisco recently resumed minyans in its backyard, with “pared down” services to reduce exposure time, and reservations mandatory.

And Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley began communal prayer outdoors with a Sunday Mincha/Ma’ariv (afternoon/evening) prayer service on July 5.

“After that, we will look to expand to weekday Shacharit and Shabbat services,” a note from Rabbi Yonatan Cohen and synagogue leaders said. Cohen wrote that during a pandemic, “no one is halakhically obligated, or should feel socially pressured, to attend.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.