Unvaccinated worshipers included in newly opened synagogues

A screenshot from an in-person Shabbat service livestreamed from Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church. (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Amy Schwartzman)

After more than a year of virtual services, Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville returned to its sanctuary for an in-person Shabbat on April 24. From the bimah, Rabbi Marc Israel watched his congregation at worship.

“It was really emotional,” he said. “Just doing the Chatzi Kaddish [Half Kaddish] in the Torah service, surprisingly, got me a little misty eyed because we hadn’t heard that melody for over a year.”

While area Orthodox synagogues have been conducting Shabbat services in person during the pandemic, liberal congregations from the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movement are only now beginning their return to in-person worship. In March, WJW spoke to five synagogues whose leaders said they weren’t ready to open their doors.

Last week, we spoke with Tikvat Israel and two other synagogues that have resumed in-person services. Masks and social distancing are required at all three, as is registration to attend. The number of people allowed inside is limited. And livestreaming services will continue for the foreseeable future, if not indefinitely.


Israel said the vaccine rollout, falling infection numbers and loosened restrictions brought his congregation back together.

“Before the vaccinations began, we all felt that the risk was not worth it,” the rabbi said. “We felt that with the high rate of vaccination for many of our members that we could safely return at this time.”

But what about the unvaccinated? Are they allowed in, too? Or, like having to show your ticket High Holiday services, do members have to proffer their vaccination cards to be admitted?

“We don’t really want to be the vaccine police, asking people to show their cards as they come into the sanctuary,” said Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church. “We’re not interested in cutting off a huge portion of our congregation from worship.”

The Reform congregation resumed in-person Friday night and Saturday morning services in March. Schwartzman said the synagogue isn’t putting any restrictions on unvaccinated congregants attending in-person services.

Pews are marked off with caution tape inside Tikvat Israel Congregation’s sanctuary in Rockville to ensure social distancing. (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Marc Israel)

But they are taking precautions. In the 900-seat sanctuary, attendance was limited to 20 members in March, but increased to 30 in April and 40 in May.

Schwartzman said she got used to livestreaming services with just herself and a cantor in the sanctuary. But having congregants in the seats — even relatively few — has been a joy.

“It was wonderful to see people taking in the liturgy, and the music. And they were so happy to be there,” Schwartzman said. “It was just really heartwarming, and I was really just incredibly happy to be there with people.”

Unlike Rodef Shalom, Tikvat Israel is making a distinction between the vaccinated and those who are not. Vaccinated congregants may pray in the sanctuary. The unvaccinated can worship outside on the synagogue’s patio. Either way, gatherings are limited to 50 people from 20 families, Israel said.

Israel said the congregation went this route so no congregants will feel excluded, such as children 16 and younger who are not yet allowed to be vaccinated.

“We didn’t want a situation where we were telling children that there’s no place for them at shul,” Israel said.

Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington resumed Friday night services on April 30 and will add Saturday morning services on May 14. Rabbi Natan Freller said attendees are not required to be vaccinated. However, attendance is limited to 50 people, including no more than 25 unvaccinated congregants. Freller said this is to ensure families with unvaccinated children can attend.

Freller said that first service began with the congregation reciting the Shehecheyanu blessing, thanking God for allowing the worshipers to reach that moment.

“It’s a very meaningful moment,” Freller said. “I was very anxious and nervous because of that.”

Shaare Tefila Congregation in Olney hopes to resume in-person services next month, said Rabbi Jonah Layman. He said the synagogue will require attendees to be vaccinated, unless they can’t for medical reasons or are children under 16.

“We don’t want to break families apart,” Layman said. “And if parents are totally vaccinated and their kids aren’t, we don’t think that those parents need to stay home.”

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