To close shuls or not to close, that is the question

Mill Hill United synagogue under Covid restrictions, including social distancing and masks (Credit: Marc Morris via Jewish News)
Mill Hill United synagogue under Covid restrictions, including social distancing and masks (Credit: Marc Morris via Jewish News)

The second person in the UK to get the vaccine was an 81-year-old called William Shakespeare. This gave Twitter a field day with headlines such as ‘The Taming of the Flu’ and ‘The Two Gentlemen of Corona’.

And now, in another lockdown, the United Synagogue’s Covid response team led by chief executive Steven Wilson has had to decide once again whether synagogues can remain open. To close or not to close, that is the question.

Judaism has a very advanced and sophisticated approach to risk assessment, particularly relating to matters of health, while always cognisant of the supremacy of pikuach nefesh, saving lives. This involves consulting experts to understand the level of risk involved and to make decisions based on that. Halacha distinguishes between minimal risk (normally permitted), moderate risk (normally permitted when there is a good reason) and high risk (normally forbidden).

With thanks to the Chief Rabbi and his office, we were able to talk to high-level contacts in both government and Public Health England. The former told us that to allow something to remain open in lockdown it has to be considered both essential and sufficiently safe.

We feel very blessed to live in a country where our shuls and communal prayer are classified as essential. This approach has  been particularly appreciated by mourners saying Kaddish and by batmitzvah girls and barmitzvah boys who have been able to celebrate their special occasions, albeit in a very limited way. It also echoes the words of former Chief Rabbi Joseph Herman Hertz, who wrote: “Since the Middle Ages, the synagogue has been the visible expression of Judaism; it has kept the Jew in life and enabled them to survive to the present day.”

It is also great credit to our members, to the rabbinic and lay leadership of our communities, and to Jo Grose, the United Synagogue’s director of communities, who has been writing our guidelines throughout this period, that government recognises our shuls are a low risk of transmission. In addition, the experts we consulted responded that provided we apply their guidelines rigorously, the risk remains low, thus falling below the threshold of closure.

In March it was clear that attending synagogue was a danger to life. Now we know more about the virus and have introduced many mitigating factors to protect our members, including face coverings, enhanced social distancing and good ventilation.

As an additional step in managing the risk, we are discouraging from attending those aged over 70 or who are medically vulnerable.

This has all led to much healthy debate among the rabbinate and beyond. The decision-making process has been gruelling, and one that we keep under constant review.

Communities know their local context and are best placed to decide what is right for their membership. Many have chosen to close and some remain open. We are continuing to support their lay and rabbinic leaders to make these difficult decisions.

Whether or not their synagogues are open, my rabbinic colleagues have worked together with their honorary officers extraordinarily hard, both day and night, to try to bring shul to their members with creative programming. Additionally, continues to offer a wide range of entertaining and educational material.

I cannot end without expressing my ongoing thanks to all the doctors, nurses, hospital staff, teachers, school staff and other frontline workers as well as to the vaccine scientists and those helping with its distribution.

I pray we should see, please God, an end to the pain and suffering very soon. News of the vaccine has brought hope to many.

Let’s pray the vaccine will ensure an end to The Winter’s Tale and may the year of 2021 be one of good health, safety and success for all.

About the Author
Rabbi Nicky Liss is Chair of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue. He serves as Rabbi of Highgate United Synagogue in London
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