By Ben Harris
If you want to pray with a minyan at Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, Maryland, the synagogue has a page on its website that guides you through the process.
At the top is a helpful video in which the Orthodox synagogue’s two rabbis describe the procedures the synagogue has adopted to enable small groups of congregants to gather in the parking lot while maintaining social distance and reducing the risk of catching COVID-19.
Then there’s a place to sign up for one of the 50 prayer spots. Attendees can choose between a standing spot closer to the action or a more remote (but arguably safer) prayer spot where they can remain in their cars. There’s even a handy tracker tool that tells you in real time how many available slots are left.
Finally, there are the safety guidelines to review. All participants are required to wear masks, show no signs of COVID-19 symptoms, and bring their own prayer shawls and prayer books.
But before you do any of that, you’ll first have to sign a waiver releasing the synagogue from any liability should you fall ill from attending the service.
“You release, covenant not to sue, discharge, and agree to hold harmless Beth Sholom, its clergy, employees, agents, officers, directors and other representatives, from and against all Claims, including all liabilities, claims, actions, damages, costs and expenses of any kind arising out of or relating thereto,” the waiver reads. “You understand that this release includes any Claims based on the actions, omissions, or negligence of Beth Sholom, its clergy, employees, agents, officers, directors and representatives, or any other persons, whether a COVID-19 infection occurs before, during, or after participation in any of the Beth Sholom’s programs.”
The Beth Sholom waiver was formulated by an attorney who sits on the synagogue committee overseeing the reopening, but other Orthodox synagogues have adopted similar measures.
At the Young Israel of West Hartford, Connecticut, the liability waiver is accepted as a condition of signing up for a prayer slot. At Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue in Washington, the document is signed electronically online. And at Kesher Israel in Harrisburg, Pa., congregants are expected to print and sign a two-page waiver and initial each paragraph. All the various versions require signatories to assume the risks of possible COVID-19 transmission and to release the synagogue and its officers from any legal liability.
“We recognized early on if we were going to open, we couldn’t guarantee everyone their health,” said Ben Hoffer, the co-president of Congregation Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Springfield, N.J. “We could make our best efforts to limit the transmission of the virus — but guarantees, those are for God. If someone wants to retain their right to sue us regardless of the fact that we’re doing everything that we can, they shouldn’t come to shul.”
Orthodox synagogues have been under significant pressure to allow for some kind of communal worship as the coronavirus pandemic has progressed. The liberal movements allow for prayer over the internet and have fewer qualms about using electronic devices on Shabbat, significantly reducing the incentives for non-Orthodox synagogues to restart in-person services.
Among those that have, waivers have not been part of the process.
Congregation Har Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Potomac, is holding daily services in a parking lot with congregants spaced apart, masks required, and a plexiglass barrier around the prayer leader. At nearby Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Shabbat services are being held for about a dozen people spread out in its 500-seat sanctuary. Clergy are protected behind plexiglass shields and all attendees are required to wear masks.
Neither synagogue requires participants to legally accept risk to join in.
“We would not do it if we didn’t think it was safe, and the liability waiver is implying it’s not safe,” said Ohr Kodesh Executive Director Jerome Kiewe. “I think we’ve been clear about what we’re doing and are confident that it’s as safe as can be.”
Orthodox synagogues that have restarted daily services say they, too, are being fastidious about safety. They stress that they are operating well within the guidelines issued by public health authorities — and in many cases going far beyond them.
Following the recommendations of national Orthodox groups, many of the reopened synagogues have waited an additional two weeks beyond the date at which local authorities permitted houses of worship to reopen. In place of the standard social distancing recommendations of 6 feet, several have enacted 10- or 12-foot requirements. And while Montgomery County, Maryland, currently permits houses of worship to conduct limited indoor activities, Beth Sholom has elected to keep all services outdoors for now.
“The building is completely off limits,” said synagogue president Michael Koplow. “Even though county guidelines would allow us to be inside with a cap on numbers and distancing, we decided the risk of that is more than we’re willing to take.”
The approach to reopening does not divide neatly along ideological lines. Two Conservative synagogues that have not yet reopened told JTA that when they do, they expect waivers to be required. And one leading Orthodox authority, Rabbi Mayer Twersky, has ruled that even small, socially distanced prayer groups run afoul of Jewish law, which privileges the saving of human life above nearly every other religious consideration.
“It is possible to wait with such matters; it is impossible to restore even one lost Jewish soul,” Twersky wrote in a paper released in Hebrew in May and more recently in English. “May God have pity on us.”
Some Orthodox synagogue members seem to agree. Beth Sholom has 415 families, but the 50-person cap on in-person services has been more than enough to accommodate demand, Koplow said. Like many Orthodox synagogues, Beth Sholom also streams its services online when it’s not Shabbat, for those who prefer to stay at home.
“All I can really tell you is that everybody is doing them,” Yaakov Roth, an attorney and the president of Ohev Sholom, said of the waivers. “It’s not just synagogues. Camps sign a waiver. Any kind of event. It’s like a best practice. At least that’s the view of the reopening committee.”