A congregant recites the blessing on the Shabbat candles at Sherith Israel’s first in-person Shabbat service on June 18, 2021. (Photo/Natalie Schrik)
A congregant recites the blessing on the Shabbat candles at Sherith Israel’s first in-person Shabbat service on June 18, 2021. (Photo/Natalie Schrik)

Synagogues had big High Holiday plans. Then came the delta variant.

Like many people, Amy Gray thought the pandemic was nearing the finish line earlier this summer. Little did the Congregation Ner Shalom president know that the delta variant had other plans.

Amy Gray
Amy Gray

Amid rising coronavirus cases in the region due in part to the highly contagious variant, leaders at the Reconstructionist synagogue in Cotati decided on July 27 to shift their upcoming High Holiday services and hold them outdoors. (Rosh Hashanah begins the evening of Sept. 6.)

But the minute they did so, other hurdles emerged. There were security concerns that came with holding services outside, as well as the “thousands of dollars” in costs associated with renting tents, chairs and other equipment, Gray said.

Moreover, the number of positive cases kept rising.

Rabbi Irwin Keller
Rabbi Irwin Keller

So on Aug. 4, Gray and Rabbi Irwin Keller said enough was enough. They nixed the outdoor plan — except for tashlich, the Rosh Hashanah custom of tossing bread or crumbs into water to symbolically cast off one’s sins — and told congregants that, yes, unfortunately, Ner Shalom High Holiday services would be virtual for a second year in a row.

“This is a wily virus,” Gray said. “We just don’t have the will of society to stamp this thing out. I am so sick of this. I’ve just had it. I was looking forward to being with people. We’ll just have to remind each other [it will be] possible to be together [in the future]. But not now.”

With Rosh Hashanah quickly approaching and Covid-19 cases on the rise, synagogues are having to either scrap their initial High Holiday plans or prepare to make a sudden shift if conditions continue to worsen. Every Bay Area synagogue leader interviewed for this story said plans were subject to change, up to the last minute.

As of Tuesday, Covid case counts in Northern California were continuing to show an upward trend, averaging 267 cases per day in San Francisco County and 524 per day in Sacramento County. Santa Clara County had the lowest daily case count per 100,000 people, while Del Norte County had the highest. California as a whole is reporting cases equivalent to what the state was experiencing at the beginning of February.

In Petaluma, leaders at the B’nai Israel Jewish Center sent out an email to congregants on Aug. 9 with some bitter news. Rabbi Ted Feldman wrote that “after serious and heartfelt discussion,” the 157-year-old synagogue would only be gathering virtually for the holidays.

“While there is disappointment in such an action, the reality of the threat is too great to take the chance,” Feldman wrote. “I have been following decisions made by other communities and more and more are shifting their services online.”

Though some synagogues are calling off in-person services entirely, others have made tentative plans to go forward with outdoor services, indoor services or a mixture.

I am so sick of this. I’ve just had it. I was looking forward to being with people

Rabbi Evon Yakar, who heads two synagogues in the Lake Tahoe area, said the shuls are planning outdoor, socially distanced High Holiday services with an online option. But he admitted he’s “less optimistic by the minute” that those plans will stand.

Rabbi Evon J. Yakar
Rabbi Evon J. Yakar

“We are hopeful that we will have some moment together for the High Holidays,” said Yakar, who oversees Temple Bat Yam in South Lake Tahoe and North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation in Tahoe Vista on the North Shore. “Although we are growing more and more concerned that things will have to pivot.”

Yakar said he and board members are looking specifically at ICU bed capacity in the region, as well as how the delta variant is affecting children, something medical experts are just beginning to understand. With cases rising in both counties where his synagogues are located, El Dorado and Placer, Yakar said one of his biggest concerns is the safety of his two young children, both unvaccinated.

“I’m scared [of] what I am going to bring home,” Yakar said. “I love Judaism. I love the High Holidays. None of that is worth the risk to my kids.”

The fact that children remain unvaccinated and vulnerable to the delta variant has led multiple synagogues to designate outdoor areas for their High Holiday services.

At Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, leaders are taking a “three-tiered” approach, said executive director David Goldman, the first being low-capacity, indoor services in the huge main sanctuary, with masks and vaccines required. (If someone is not eligible for a vaccine, they will have to show a negative test result from within the previous 72 hours.) Emanu-El’s annual tashlich at Baker Beach is still on the schedule.

The second tier is children’s services, which will be held outside at a nearby park.

“It makes the parents less worried,” Goldman said. “It loosens up a lot of pressure points.” The third tier is offering virtual services.

Additionally, the synagogue recently decided to move its Aug. 13 “Late Shabbat,” the first in 18 months, to an outdoor location; pre-Covid, the event regularly attracted dozens and sometimes hundreds of 20- and 30-somethings to the synagogue for noshing, booze, camaraderie and spirituality.

Cantor Toby Glaser rehearses a prerecorded High Holiday service at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, Aug. 2020. (Photo/Michael Fox)
Cantor Toby Glaser rehearses a prerecorded High Holiday service at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, Aug. 2020. (Photo/Michael Fox)

“While we would absolutely love to move forward with our normal Late Shabbat this Friday as planned, we have to do what is safe for our community,” an Aug. 8 email to the Emanu-El’s young adult community stated.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa have adopted strategies similar to Emanu-El’s in terms of reserving space outside as a precautionary measure for children.

“The kids like being outdoors,” said Beth Shalom Rabbi Niles Goldstein, who added that he’s cutting the length of indoor holiday services significantly because of the mask-wearing requirement. “I don’t think people want to watch a 2½- to 3-hour service at home or [in person] with a mask on their face. My sermons are going to be half the length.”

Gordon Gladstone, executive director of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, said the whole situation makes him feel like a “centipede with a case of poison ivy,” which is to say that he is on his toes and ready to make any necessary changes. The shul currently is planning to conduct indoor High Holiday services with a fully masked congregation.

There is a debate, however, among leadership about whether to require vaccinations to enter the sanctuary.

Gordon Gladstone
Gordon Gladstone

“It is still a point of very active discussion,” Gladstone said, pointing out the need to analyze the situation on a “cost/benefit” basis. He thinks people would be more comfortable if there was a vaccination mandate, but also said it probably wouldn’t make a huge difference since San Francisco and the Jewish community at-large have high vaccination rates.

“This has been a very fast-moving situation,” Gladstone said. “We’ve been consistently wrong about so much in the last 18 months. We have an idea of what we are going to do. But this is not carved in stone. We may change our minds at the last minute.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.