Covid and UK synagogues – Moving on with care

Synagogue in Edgware under Covid restrictions early in the pandemic. (Marc Morris Photography via Jewish News)
Synagogue in Edgware under Covid restrictions early in the pandemic. (Marc Morris Photography via Jewish News)

Community has been at the centre of Jewish life for millennia. It is a serious part of our history as a nation, a people. And we have seen the importance of community over the last year and a half of journeying together through the pandemic.

Jewish communities, whether Synagogue or non-Synagogue based have stuck together, helped each other in a deep and meaningful way, and shown support for local communities outside the Jewish world, too.

I have been ever so proud of my community, Muswell Hill Synagogue, for both setting up the structures that ensure welfare and care is dispensed within the community and for connecting with local food and homeless support charities to offer them an array of support.  

Community however is more than an acting principle, something that motivates us. It is a concept, and one very much a part of Jewish life.

Of course, the obligations of Jewish religious life devolve onto individuals.

It is individuals who are obligated in performing and keeping commandments.

It is individuals that need to ensure that they have heard the shofar on Rosh Hashana, sit in a Succah on Succot or keep the laws of the Sabbath.

But the concept of community is always there in concert with this individualist role. I remember being inspired reading from the writings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik on the atonement we receive from God on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

This atonement is granted by God to those who take part in Yom Kippur, who fast, who ask God for forgiveness. But what about someone who doesn’t fast, or who doesn’t connect to the day itself – can they receive atonement.

Rav Soloveitchik pushes forward the opinion that they can receive atonement from the day itself – but only through being part of the people, the community. In other words, they receive atonement both as individuals – and as being part of the community itself.  

This concept of community plays out in my community, and many others that are part of the United Synagogue. There may well be a difference in the level of observance of many members of the community than that held by the community as a concept. So in my community, levels of kashrut are kept, levels of keeping the Laws of Shabbat are kept, which will be different than that kept in the homes of many members.

This is the creative tension that I as a leader deal with – and it can be a very positive tension as well.

As long as the community concept, the community contract almost, does not overwhelm how people behave in their private, individual lives; and as long as individuals are respectful of the difference and keep to the unspoken community contract to maintain an orthodox approach in the community spaces – then a positive balance exists. This allows both individuals to reflect on their way of Jewish life; and allows community leaders to not be too distant from the lives of their members.  

And here I would like to bring in the individual and community relationship to the Covid pandemic in the community space. The government have decided to suspend legal regulation from July 19th, moving in a sense directly from a communal concept where the common good was more important; to a position where individual choice is more important.

So, I am not interested here in expressing my opinions on how individuals behave, just as I am very careful on how I discuss individual religious behaviour. But in a communal space, where the community concept is more relevant, it is my opinion that we should not solely by guided by individual choice but consider leadership regarding the common good.

We know that numbers of those receiving Covid are growing fast, although it not clear that hospitalisation will reach the heights of early 2021 due to the massive vaccine drive. But having people sit in close proximity, without wearing masks, should clearly raise the possibility of people contracting Covid in Synagogue spaces, the more that attend those spaces. And so decisions may need to be taken for instance, that expect those attending certain services to wear a mask, or to leave a seat between them and others around them. Masks especially have not been popular with Synagogue goers, and a number are not attending due to the need for mask wearing. But this should not necessarily motivate us to decide the other way.

Instead, we can look for many communal get togethers where masks will not be expected. This could be small numbers meeting inside (such as small prayer services, classes or small events) or larger numbers outdoors where masks are not required even now. We have been creative in order to be inclusive before while protecting our community – we can surely do that again.  

So technically, we can’t ‘force’ people to wear masks or not sit next to each other in Synagogue after July 19th, and to be honest I look forward to the time when I don’t have to ‘police’ how things have been working in the Synagogue, always out of a desire to protect the community.

But let’s not get stuck within this concept of the individual, their choice and their freedom. Let’s not forget that while ‘out there’ the conversation is around individual legal requirements; we are part of communities too. And maybe, just maybe, our balanced approach will have an impact on how other ‘community’ spaces act.  

About the Author
Rabbi David Mason is rabbi to an Orthodox community of over 1000 people in London and is on the executive of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue. He has an MA in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies and undertakes a great deal of civic and inter faith work. He was recently appointed as trustee for FODIP (Forum for Discussion on Israel and Palestine) and the Council of Christians of Jews as well as now Chairing the Haringey Multi Faith Network. He also has two years training in family therapy.
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