The changing face of our relationship with synagogue

The COVID-19 crisis has changed the way we conduct ourselves in so many ways especially now as the country may enter another lockdown. We must  think and plan before going anywhere. Spontaneity has gone to the wayside, for now at least. 

My most vivid memory, while growing up in Brookline, MA, was “shul-hopping” on Simchat Torah. What a thrill to start at Maimonides, dance down to the Bostoner Rebbe and the icing on the cake was watching, as the Rav, Rabbi Soloveitchik danced with his mechutan The Talner Rebbe. The shul was packed, with barely room to move, let alone breathe. We were literally on top of one another. We were so carefree as we sang, held hands and danced with one another.

Since coming on aliyah 27 years ago, my family and I have had the luxury of deciding where to go to shul based on our mood, what time we woke up, special chazzan or special dvar torah. Within a 15 minute walk from our home, we can choose from at least a dozen synagogues to attend. Synagogue attendance is not just about the davening. Synagogue, whether in Chutz l’Aretz or Israel, represents community. Attending synagogue, as opposed to praying at home, means that you want to be part of the minyan. You want to join together with others in prayer.

Encyclopedia Britannica defines “Synagogue” as:

Synagogue, also spelled synagog, in Judaism, a community house of worship that serves as a place not only for liturgical services but also for assembly and study. Its traditional functions are reflected in three Hebrew synonyms for synagogue: bet ha-tefilla (“house of prayer”), bet ha-kneset (“house of assembly”), and bet ha-midrash (“house of study”). The term synagogue is of Greek origin (synagein, “to bring together”) and means “a place of assembly.” The Yiddish word shul (from German Schule, “school”) is also used to refer to the synagogue, and in modern times the word temple is common among some Reform and Conservative congregations.

Whether we call our place of worship a synagogue, Beit Knesset, temple or shul- the meaning is the same- it is a “place of assembly”, a place for people to gather together, to catch up with friends, in addition to praying.

All of that has changed during this time. COVID-19 has forced us to protect not just  our physical being but our social being as well. Today closeness has been replaced by social distancing.As we hide behind masks, it is hard to recognize or even hear others. I feel as though I am constantly judging others; is he too close to me, why isn’t she wearing a mask, his nose isn’t covered, I don’t think she washed her hands…

Synagogue, once a refuge, is now a place of fear and uncertainty. It is no longer the warm and welcoming place we have been so familiar with and yearn for. Gabbaim and Rabbis are forced to count the number of participants and ask the extras to leave-when did they ever have to ask a congregant to leave their shul before? The after shul kiddush, once the nice social gathering is no more, along with  the opportunity to socialize with friends. Many shuls can no longer welcome new comers- it is now a members only club-with a sign in before Shabbat, temperature check and “Corona police” checking to make sure you are masked and gloved. Forgot to bring your own siddur or chumash-too bad. The door to the shul is locked and we can’t share ours with you.

What can we do as a community to maintain the cohesiveness during this time, without alienating our friends?

  • We must be respectful of everyone’s space. Social distancing is the new normal for now. This does not mean that you can’t greet your friend, fellow congregant-just from 2 meters away. We can still be social just from a distance.
  • Masks are not comfortable. We can all agree on that. But research has shown that masks not only protect ourselves but those around us. Wear the mask properly over your face and mouth and as uncomfortable as you are, believe me so am I! We are all in this together.
  • Please do not get insulted if you felt slighted by a friend. Take it from me- the mask inhibits my ability to hear. We need to learn to use other methods of body language, since we can’t see the smile. Nod, wave, thumbs up are great ways to greet friends.
  • Please do not be angry if asked to leave the shul due to the number of participants. We all must follow the rules. This is not about you-it is about keeping everyone safe.
  • In the framework of Halacka-think פיקוח נפש- a matter of protecting lives, ours and those of the community at large.

As we approach the 17th of Tammuz and 3 weeks later 9 Av, we can use this time to reflect upon the effect of the virus on us personally and our community. By following a few simple rules we can overcome this and hopefully return to our synagogues.

About the Author
Debra Weiner-Solomont is the coordinator of the Pardes Institute Community Education Program. She received her MSW from Wurzweiler School of Social Work. Debra along with her husband and sons came on aliyah from Brookline, MA, 27 years ago.
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