Each year, Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church celebrates more than a 100 b’nai mitzvah. But all that joy ground to a halt in March, along with the rest of the world. For the first two weeks of the pandemic, the Reform congregation delayed and rescheduled b’nai mitzvah.
“We had postponed many of them, or families had postponed, hopefully thinking that this would all be ending soon,” said Executive Director Beth Silver. “But it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. And we couldn’t postpone them anymore.”
Like many congregations, Temple Rodef Shalom has been hosting services via Zoom livestream. But as Virginia began to open up, the synagogue began looking for ways to reoccupy their building, even in small ways. So the congregation turned to its COVID-19 advisory group to craft procedures on how to return to synagogue life while implementing social distancing.
The group’s 15 members include clergy, staff and congregants who have medical expertise. Congregation President Amy Beckman pitched the idea to create a group to devise best practices for the temple. She was happily surprised when all the congregants she asked to participate agreed.
“Literally within 12 hours I had yesses from everybody that I reached out to,” said Beckman, a psychotherapist.
The group’s first task was to devise building use guidelines and provide other relevant COVID-19 information on the synagogue’s website. The document is updated regularly and includes restrictions like the maximum number of people permitted at any in-person event, requiring face masks, increasing the frequency of cleaning and sanitizing, limiting access to the building, shortening in-person events and eliminating the use of shared items like prayer books.
Then they turned to the b’nai mitzvah. Since late March they had been conducted virtually over Zoom. But many in the congregation wanted the option to have small, in-person b’nai mitzvah inside the temple.
So the advisory group devised measures for cleaning the bathrooms after individual use and installing plexiglass on the podium in the sanctuary. The Torah is already placed on the podium; participants don’t have to touch it to remove it from the ark.
Since June, families have had the option to celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah inside the synagogue. Those present are limited to immediate family and necessary clergy. At the same time, the ceremony is streamed on Zoom. So far, four families have opted for a limited in-person simchah. Senior Cantor Michael Shochet said most families scheduled for July and August continue to opt for Zoom ceremonies. But he expects that to change come September.
Shochet said the advisory group’s guidance reassured him. He said it has allowed clergy to serve the community with the least amount of risk to members.
“I feel so bad for the families who had a set of expectations of what they wanted their child’s bar mitzvah to be like,” Shochet said. “I feel really bad for these people. It’s such an important milestone in your life and you have a set of ideals. But I do believe we’ve been able to offer people very meaningful services, especially the ones who have done it at home on some of our virtual platforms.”
The COVID-19 advisory group meets at least once a month over Zoom, and also works together through email and Google Drive. Their next assignment is to plan how to proceed with religious school this fall.
Silver said if she had to rate the synagogue as red meaning closed and green meaning open, she’d put the current state at bright orange. The committee’s next big task is devising a plan for High Holiday services, which are to be livestreamed.
“Our clergy are hard at work, envisioning what it’s going to look like,” Silver said. “We’re thinking it’s going to be a really good opportunity to try something new. Be a little creative. They say necessity is the mother of all invention, so here we go.”