The Rabbinic Council of Bergen County, the group to which the county’s modern Orthodox rabbis belong, took a bold step in mid-March. It called on all local synagogues and schools and most of its other institutions to close. No more minyanim, no more shivas, no more in-person learning. No more allowing anyone except perhaps one or two of the closest mourners at funerals. No more wedding celebrations. No more Shabbat meals, no more restaurant meals, no more parties.
Just stay at home, people were told. Do whatever you can online; what can’t be done using electronics, either for halachic reasons or for technical and practical ones, just can’t be done.
We’re doing this in accordance with the upmost Jewish value, or preserving life, the RCBC said. Everything else matters, but nothing else matters quite as much. Because once you’re dead, you’re dead.
(Or, to mix worlds without mincing words, “The grave’s a fine and private place, But none, I think, do there embrace,” as Andrew Marvell told us in the mid-seventeenth century, in a poem that’s been echoing disconcertingly in my head the last few months.)
This week, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, the national groups to which the RCBC rabbis belong, issued a 13-point statement called “Guidance to Shuls and Communities on Reopening.”
A few days later, the RCBC issued its own statement, which accepted and built on the OU and RCA’s guidelines and offered specifics about Shavuot — which may not be celebrated with communal gatherings or minyanim.
The OU/RCA statement is striking because, despite its title, despite the detail into which it goes as it details re-opening strategy, its main point is that it is not yet time to reopen. Now, the statement says, although the costs of remaining closed admittedly are high and still accruing, still it is time to remain closed.
Once reopening is possible, according to the statement, it will have to be done slowly, and “we must chart the course suited for local conditions…. As always, shuls and communities must strictly follow the guidelines provided by local and national authorities, including the CDC and local health departments.”
After the introduction, the first point is “We are not yet ready to open.”
The second point is that “Every community is unique. There can be no global or national schedule for reopening.”
The statement goes on to talk about how reopening necessarily will be gradual, and that discipline and clear communication as well as empathy will be vital.
After those opening points, the statement goes on to describe, in detail, what a partially reopened community might look like. In a shul setting — the setting about which the statement is most prescriptive — how many people can be there, for how long, under what conditions, sitting in which seats all are described. And then it circles comes back to the first point. It’s not time yet.
We wish this report were wrong. We wish it were too pessimistic, too gloomy, too hopeless. But we know it’s not.
We know that there is hope ahead of us, and light, but we know that we don’t see much except darkness right now. We know that we must forge ahead, push ahead, even grope ahead, and eventually most of us will be above ground, in the light, at shul and parties and restaurants and Shabbat dinners and lunches and programs and concerts and plays and movies again. But if we move too fast, more of us won’t make it out.
Let’s all pay attention to the guidance that tells us to take it slow.