Synagogues hesitant to reopen despite vaccine rollout

Rabbi Michael Werbow of Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington is already eyeing the High Holidays. (Photo by Isabella Lefkowitz-Rao)

By Eric Schucht and Isabella Lefkowitz-Rao

As Passover begins on Saturday night, the threat of the pandemic seems to be diminishing. More and more people in the Washington area are receiving inoculations against the coronavirus. Virginia, the District and Maryland are beginning to lift restrictions as COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths hint at a downward trend.

Is it time for synagogue goers to return to the pews?

At Bethesda Jewish Congregation, Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer said he isn’t ready to throw open the doors just yet.

“It’s a little premature in our opinion,” he said. “We have a number of members who have been vaccinated, but we’re still getting there. There’s a lot of factors, even though the county said ‘go ahead.’”

For some American Jews, namely the Orthodox, in-person services were only on hold for a matter of months, with most Orthodox synagogues resuming in-person activities by last summer, many with masks and social distancing required. But for most other congregations, the one-year anniversary of the pandemic also marked an entire year without in-person services, which have remained virtual to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in synagogue sanctuaries.

Even as vaccinations increase and COVID cases plummet, many of those synagogues are electing to stay largely virtual for now.

Schnitzer can see a return to the building for programs in April or May. He doesn’t think services will resume there until the summer.

Rabbi Charles L. Arian doesn’t want to resume services in the sanctuary of Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg until everyone is vaccinated. He doesn’t want to create a two-class system in which the vaccinated people are free to come to services while everyone else has to watch from home.

“The pace of the rollout has gotten really fast, really quickly. I once thought it wouldn’t be until the High Holidays,” Arian said. “Now I think probably sometime in late spring.”

Even then, he wants to be able to conduct services both in the sanctuary and remotely.

Machar: The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism has similar plans to run hybrid High Holiday services with some members in person and others attending via livestream.

“We’re not really committing to a particular course of action right now,” said Rabbi Jeremy Kridel. “In part because everything keeps changing and in part because Machar’s culture is very committed to evidence-based practices, and right now it suggests that we’re not there yet.”

Rabbi Michael Werbow of Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington is already eyeing the High Holidays.

“The one thing that everyone’s looking forward to is the High Holidays,” Werbow said. “You don’t want to be the one congregation that isn’t opening up, right?”

Meanwhile, the 325-member-unit congregation will continue to meet virtually. Werbow said they’ll reevaluate the situation in late May or early June. He said the Conservative congregation’s biggest concerns are high COVID case numbers and low vaccination numbers.

“So we’re waiting for those two things in concert to happen, really the caseloads going down, and more vaccinations going up to a higher percentage,” Werbow said.
Singing, one of the most joyful parts of worship, is one of the easiest ways to spread coronavirus. Rabbi Lizz Goldstein of Congregation Ner Shalom in Woodbridge said that when her synagogue does open up, masks will remain.

“It’s an important part of our worship service, and I don’t want to lose that,” Goldstein said. “But I want it to be safe. And so even though it’s annoying to sing with a mask on, I think it will be safer to do so.”

She doesn’t expect the 65 member families of her Reform congregation to return to in-person services until the High Holidays at the very earliest.

The congregation does plan to reopen its religious school for in-person, outdoor classes next month. Goldstein said she plans to survey her congregation to find out how many congregants have been vaccinated and would be comfortable returning for services. Only then will she plan the next step.

“I understand that I can’t hold out necessarily for 100 percent vaccination, but I want to get as close to that as possible,” she said.

At Beth Sholom Temple in Fredericksburg, congregation President Tiina Rodrigue can tell you under exactly what conditions they will reopen.

When the five counties the synagogue serves have consistently declining COVID positivity test rates for 14 days. And when at least 70 percent of the national population is fully vaccinated, which some experts estimate is the minimum number needed to achieve herd immunity, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Rodrigue said her congregation, with 114 member families, is concerned about a potential third wave of rising cases and COVID variants.

“So we’re cautiously optimistic, but conservatively staying in Zoom land until we know for sure,” she said. “We’re just trying to follow the science. Not the news. Not the hype. Just the science.”

While liberal congregations have largely abandoned their buildings for the last year, Kehilat Pardes – The Rock Creek Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox synagogue, has been holding services in person, in order to have a prayer quorum.

Rabbi Uri Topolosky said services began outdoors, but as the weather got colder, congregants began to meet inside as well as out. Those outside can see into the building and the doors are propped open to allow them to hear.

“It’s actually been really pleasant for us, mostly,” Topolosky said. “There’ve been some really cold days that make it challenging, but everyone has been really stepping up in a beautiful way.”

Topolosky said the congregation plans to stick to this model and reevaluate over the summer.

“Not everybody is comfortable yet coming back to synagogue,” Topolosky said. “But it allows us, or challenges us, to say, OK, we’re still outdoors, but we can have more people here.”

Eric Schucht is staff writer and Isabella Lefkowitz-Rao is an intern for Washington Jewish Week. Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this article.

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