A service without singing?

When I was a child, I was part of my synagogue’s choir. The difference between me and every other choir member is that I was told to mime. I was allowed to stand there with the other children, my lips were allowed to move, but no sound was to come out of my mouth. (Looking back, I wonder why I joined the choir.) Despite my love of music, I have always been “tone deaf,” unable to hold a tune or really follow one.

While I cannot sing (at least in the tuneful sense of the word), it is a core element of my prayer experience. It was the musical services at summer camp that deepened my connection to and love of Judaism. There are still certain tunes and refrains that I can hear and immediately they transport me back to a field, where I’m sitting on the grass in a circle, singing together with my fellow campers and counselors.

I will often be standing up on the bimah (the lectern from where services are led) listening to our Cantor lead us in song and prayer. It truly elevates the soul in what is an awe-inspiring experience. As the Rabbi standing alongside her, I am also forced to recognize that no matter how good I might think my sermon is, it is never going to have the power to move people in the way that the combination of certain music, songs and prayers can.

When Governor Baker made the decision to reopen religious institutions as part of his phase one for reopening Massachusetts. In all honesty, I was surprised to hear that mosques, churches, synagogues, and temples were to be included in the first round. And of course, it meant that we now had a choice to make about reopening. Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean that you should.

Even though we desperately want to see our community in person, and we know that there are many who yearn to be back together in our sanctuary, we cannot at this time reopen. The overwhelming Jewish value for us in this conversation is Pikuach Nefesh, the saving of life. In Judaism this idea takes precedence over virtually every other commandment, and so without being able to guarantee the safety of our community, even with the guidelines, we cannot reopen yet.

The Governor did not simply allow us to reopen; the announcement also included guidelines: a maximum of 40% occupancy of the building, the wearing of face masks, and the need for families to keep a distance of six feet between them. I am sure that these will help in creating a safer environment, although we have to consider whether we have the space to accommodate people in this way and how we might limit ourselves to an occupancy of 40% (or fewer depending on the space restrictions). That is to say nothing of what a religious service, when a community comes together, will feel like when everyone is wearing masks.

Perhaps we can find a way to make it work with these necessary restrictions to come back together, but not yet.

The problem, which was not addressed in the guidelines, and which I am struggling with, is what do we do about singing? How can we have a synagogue service in which we cannot sing together?

In March, a choir came together in Skagit, Washington. Sixty-one people came together to sing; one person was symptomatic and as a result of the singing in close proximity, fifty-three cases were identified – 87% of the group who were together. Since then there have been numerous articles and studies that have identified the dangers of singing as a super-spreading activity for Covid-19.[1] On May 5th, the National Association of Teachers of Singing together with other organizations brought together a panel of experts on singing and Covid-19; the conclusion was that without a vaccine there cannot be safe public singing.[2]

Over the last few months, we have switched to digital services; streaming from our sanctuary and our homes, with clergy physically separate, but digitally connected through the screen.  We cannot raise our voices together (the technology doesn’t work well for that), but we can join together in song; listening to the voices and melodies that are so familiar, uplifting our souls, and bringing comfort to our community.

The synagogue that I have the privilege of serving and belonging to is called Shir Tikva, the name itself means “Song of Hope.” Music and communal singing have been at the heart of this community since its founding; and in reality, it is at the heart of what we do as Jews, stretching back to the Priests singing Psalms in the Temple. How can we have services together in-person at Shir Tikva, when we cannot sing together? Don’t worry, while we may not be able to have our traditional services, we are exploring the potential for outdoor experiences and other ways that we may be able to come together safely.

I look forward to the opportunity to pray and sing together, in person, with my community. I am hoping for that time when we will be able to embrace one another. And I am eager for us to be able to reopen our synagogue building in a way that ensure the safety of all of our members. Until that time, I am grateful for the technology that allows us to remain spiritually connected, to strengthen our community, and to sing and pray together.

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6919e6.htm

[2] https://www.middleclassartist.com/post/nats-panel-of-experts-lays-out-sobering-future-for-singers-no-vaccine-no-safe-public-singing

About the Author
Rabbi Danny is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA. He has a weekly Podcast “2 Minutes of Torah”, which was included in the Top 7 Jewish Podcasts and is available on iTunes. He was a member of the inaugural cohort of the UJA Federation of New York’s Rabbinic Fellowship for Visionary Leaders and he is a Rabbis Without Borders Fellow. Alongside this he is Gabby and Benny’s daddy and Micol’s husband.