As delta variant spreads, synagogues scramble

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Image of the pathogen responsible for COVID-19. Source: CDC.

After a year of restrictions, synagogues locally and nationally were looking forward to being able to hold in-person services for the High Holidays, which begin with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of Sept. 6.
Now, as COVID-19 cases spike across the country due to a surge in the delta variant of the virus, many are having to intensify their safety measures or rethink holding in-person services.
“We have, like many congregations, a group a people, including medical professionals, who have provided advice all along the way, on our protocols and our activities,” said Mark Director, president of Washington Hebrew Congregation, “and we’ll continue to monitor the situation and respond as necessary,” Director said.
The Reform synagogue, which held its first indoor service since the pandemic began on July 2, will comply with the District’s new indoor mask mandate for all individuals, whether vaccinated or not.
Director said the new rules apply both at its Washington synagogue and at it Julia Bindeman Suburban Center in Potomac, even though Montgomery County is not yet requiring indoor masking for vaccinated individuals.
“We want to adopt the most conservative rule across the board,” Director said.
Director said the synagogue is prepared to make additional changes to its plans should the need arise.
For many synagogues, the assumption until just a few weeks ago was that the vaccines had made it safe to come back together in person. Many who celebrated the high holidays last year over Zoom longed to gather as they always did.
But the rapid spread of the delta variant has thrown a wrench in those plans.
The risks delta poses to vaccinated people appear to be low — most of the coronavirus vaccines have remained effective at preventing serious illness and death from the delta variant, and the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths from delta have been among the unvaccinated.
Still, even vaccinated people who have been comfortable socializing with other vaccinated people in small groups may not be comfortable attending Rosh Hashanah services with hundreds of people. And for vaccinated parents of children who are not eligible for the vaccine, the calculations may be different.
At synagogues in the Washington area and across the country, rabbis said they would be planning multiple options for services with the understanding that some of those plans would be scrapped at the last moment.
Rabbi Adam Rosenwasser, of Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue in Kensington, is planning on holding both in-person and livestreamed services. Attendees 12 and older are expected to be vaccinated and to wear masks. Services for families with young children will be held outdoors on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mornings.
“As of right now we are not changing our plans due to the variant but we will continue to evaluate the situation over the next five weeks,” Rosenwasser said in an email.
Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Falls Church, said they will also be providing both virtual and indoor, in-person events, as well as separate services for families with children of all ages.
“We are not asking people to prove they are vaccinated. In a recent poll of the congregation, of the adults who responded 99 percent were vaccinated,” Schwartzman said in an email.
For those attending services on the High Holidays, traditionally the most well-attended synagogue services of the year, this means yet another year of not quite “back to normal.”
“Last year, even though we were in the thick of it, I think a lot of folks sort of went with, what are we going to learn from this, what are we going to take from it?” said Rabbi Sari Laufer of Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles. “Now we’re a year later and I think we’re not where we even thought we’d be this year.”
At Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield, Mich., the family service will be held at a local football field, with the rabbi and high school students who help lead the service stationed on the track.
“That way everybody can physically distance in the stands, and we can spread out and use the sound systems to be able to project,” Rabbi Daniel Schwartz said. “For those families that aren’t comfortable being in person just yet, we’ll also have a livestream of the service, too.”
Rabbi Neil Tow of Sha’are Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Leesburg, said plans are still under development to hold in-person services that will also be streamed online.
“We’re putting safety first as we plan for the high holidays,” Tow said. “With all of these plans we’re saying these plans are ‘subject to change.’”
He said the congregation is developing safety procedures for certain aspects of the services, such as safely blowing the shofar.
“Masks will probably be part of the picture in some form or another, given what’s going on,” Tow said.
Ohev Shalom – The National Synagogue, an Orthodox synagogue in Washington, is not making definitive high holiday plans at this time, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld said in an email.
“We are still assessing the situation and our plans are fluid,” he said.
For many worshippers at this year’s high holiday services, there will be some disappointment that services aren’t entirely “back to normal” yet. For others, the return to in-person services may be more than they are comfortable with.
“I think there are some people who are going to be like, I can’t believe you’re making me be masked at an outdoor service, or I can’t believe you’re making me be masked at an indoor service when I showed you that I was vaccinated,” Laufer said. On the other hand, she said, “We definitely have people saying I just want to confirm that we’ll be able to stream services.”
Rabbi Jonah Layman of Shaare Tefila Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Olney, said plans are to hold in-person services for fully vaccinated attendees as well as services via Zoom.
Layman said, however, that in-person plans may need to be modified further or even scrapped.
“Things are changing with the delta variant spreading, so who knows where we will be six weeks from now,” Layman said. “Our congregation has been very good about going with the flow, and everybody understands we’re trying to do our best to keep everyone safe.”
Laufer said the goal this year was to be safe, to gather in-person as much as possible and to upset as few people as possible.
“Last year was easier, [though] emotionally much harder. The feeling of a sense of loss last year was really palpable for all of us,” Laufer said. “I think now it’s harder logistically, the flow charts we had to make — it made my brain hurt.”
JTA News and Features contributed to this story.
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