Synagogues already preparing for the possibility of social distancing on the High Holidays

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Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images via JTA.

By Rachel Kohn and Josefin Dolsten

On Sunday, Rabbi Amy Sapowith was preparing for a meeting of faith leaders with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s office when she brought up the subject of the High Holidays with members of her congregation.


“It is a little premature, but we have just today broached the question for the first time,” said Sapowith, of Beit Chaverim Reform Congregation in Ashburn. “Depending on the degree that stay-at-home orders are relaxed, we will consider accommodating both live, in-person services with a livestream option for those at higher risk, greater distance or just cautious. This is something that many congregations have been providing pre-coronavirus. More than that, we have not discussed.”

American synagogues closed their doors in March to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Many expected that several weeks or, at most, a few months would elapse before the pandemic was under sufficient control for in-person religious services to resume.

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But as the weeks wear on, it is becoming increasingly clear that the resumption of normal activity remains a far-off proposition. Even as a few states begin allowing some businesses to reopen, social distancing guidelines remain in place, and some city officials and public health experts have warned that large gatherings are unlikely to be safe until sometime in 2021.

That leaves Rosh Hashanah, which this year begins Sept. 18, as a major question mark.


It’s too early to say for sure what things will look like in September, said Stephen Buka, a professor of epidemiology at Brown University. Whether gathering in person will be advisable depends on a number of factors, including how the country’s testing infrastructure develops and if coronavirus infections rise again as temperatures cool.

“Right now, the requirement is that everything be virtual, and I think that wouldn’t necessarily be needed in July, and it’s too hard to say what will be needed in September,” he said.

Buka says that even if High Holiday services could be held in person, they wouldn’t be the same as in previous years. Social distancing measures would likely be needed and at-risk groups could be cautioned from going.

“I think a very likely scenario to predict at this point is that if you’re over 70, don’t congregate, stay home, and that if families with young children want to come and be socially distanced that could very well be a reasonable compromise,” he said.

How do you pick who attends?

The rapidly changing recommendations and policies around preventing the spread of the coronavirus, which so far has killed more than 68,000 people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has some synagogues holding off on any decisions just yet.

Others are planning for multiple contingencies.

Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church usually holds eight services on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, and 3,000 people typically spend some time in the synagogue’s three spaces. “The busiest airport in America is what our building looks like,” said Rabbi Amy Schwartzman.

With that experience seeming increasingly unlikely, Schwartzman and the four other clergy members at Rodef Shalom held a scenario planning meeting last month to explore other possibilities — including the fact that the synagogue may have no in-person worship at all due to the coronavirus.

“We know that in the worst-case scenario we could provide the congregation with an online worship experience for all the holidays,” she said.

Herzl-Ner Tamid, a Conservative synagogue outside Seattle on Mercer Island, Wash., has 750 member families, and the synagogue’s sanctuary can hold up to 1,000 people.

“We’re making the assumption that by September it’s not going to be OK to have a thousand people together in one room, so we’re taking that as a starting point,” said the synagogue’s rabbi, Barry Leff. “If they say, ‘Fine, you can have 50 people,’ how do you pick which 50 people get to be the ones that get to be there? Or do you set up a rotation, where people can sign up for an hour-long time slot? It can get very complicated pretty quickly.”

Keeping key experiences

Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville has a COVID-19 task force composed of board leaders, synagogue staff and doctors from the congregation. “The consensus after a call 10 days ago was that the likelihood of being able to have 300 people in a room in September is pretty low,” said Rabbi Marc Israel on Sunday. “We have to rethink how we create a meaningful High Holiday experience: What are the key experiences, and how do you do it in a way that is going to have meaning in the setting?”

Until now, the Conservative synagogue offered services twice a day during the week and Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdalah on the weekend, all via Zoom. This week they are starting a “Shabbat friendly” stream of services over the course of the Sabbath, with either the cantor or the rabbi going into the sanctuary and leading from there.

Streaming is one-way experience, in contrast with the live interactive environment of a conference platform like Zoom. “One of our concerns is to try not to have a highly passive experience,” said Israel. Streamed prayers give congregants the opportunity to sing along, but it remains to be seen whether the weekly Torah reading makes the cut in terms of engagement.

High Holiday services will pose their own unique challenges. “It’s one thing to have a 45-minute service or even one- or two-hour service, but High Holiday services are typically twice that long,” Israel pointed out. “We’re trying to figure out exactly what it might look like.”

Rabbi Joshua Stanton at New York’s East End Temple has been exploring how his community might be able to do certain parts of the High Holiday rituals in person. For example, if officials allow people to gather outside in smaller groups, the Reform synagogue may be able to do tashlich, the ritual where people gather outside to throw bread in a body of water to represent casting off their sins.

In traditional Jewish practice, the shofar is supposed to be heard on Rosh Hashanah without any intervention between the blower and the listener, making a broadcast of the blasts insufficient for some synagogues. Israel is in conversation with the Washington Board of Rabbis to see how many shofar blowers might be available to do neighborhood shofar blowings. “We would create a list of times and spots where that would happen and we would publish it for everybody,” he said. “That would be a kind of neat outcome in terms of bringing people together across synagogue lines.”

“I have been in discussions with rabbinic colleagues to think about how to do smaller services if we have to do many of them one after another to accommodate people while social distancing,” said Rabbi Hyim Shafner, who leads the Orthodox synagogue Kesher Israel in Georgetown. “This will take same tweaking within the boundaries of Jewish law to shorten the services; there may even be parts that can be done just by one service on behalf of the entire community, saving time for subsequent services the same day.”

“Of course, there’s also the option of having everyone come at once and doing it at the Verizon Center,” he said. “Just kidding.”

Rabbi Robert Harris, a professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary who also serves as a part-time rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Cambridge, Mass., made an early and bold plea to his colleagues to cease all live synagogue events in March. He said he expects services to take place via a livestream, but is still figuring out details: for instance, whether members at the nondenominational synagogue will join virtually or whether a minyan (the prayer quorum of 10 people required to say certain prayers) would gather in one place if permissible and the rest would join via livestream.

“None of us are prophets,” Harris said, “but I think if we’re not planning for the eventuality that this fall we’re going to still be socially distancing ourselves, then we’re abandoning our responsibilities to our communities.”

Sapowitz agreed. “We value medical expertise and will continue looking to take our cues from the experts,” she said.

Rachel Kohn is WJW senior writer. Josefin Dolsten writes for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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