I was saddened by the Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday night in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, overturning the New York Governor’s toughest restrictions on the number of people who may attend a religious service at the height of the pandemic. I’m no constitutional lawyer, so I’ll leave legal objections to the dissenting justices. Instead, as a congregational religious leader, I am appalled that such a ruling is necessary. No house of worship in this land should prioritize in-person worship or celebration over saving human life.
The biblical tradition shared by the appellants — Roman Catholics and some ultra-Orthodox Jews – includes the injunction to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). In early spring, when too many communities were ill-served by those whose responsibility it was to disseminate public health information on the novel coronavirus, one could understand how a church choir or ultra-Orthodox wedding could become a super-spreader.
Now, however, we know: Infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are frighteningly on the rise again. This virus is airborne. Infected singers and those who project their voices also launch more virus into the crowd. Forgoing gatherings with people outside of our own households saves lives. Now, therefore, those who gather in large numbers in houses of worship are knowingly choosing a significant risk of death, a violation of Scripture.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I serve a thriving Jewish community in Little Rock, Arkansas. (Yes, there are Jews here.) Our congregation includes some 330 households, with members of all ages. None of our members has died of COVID-19, though several have fallen ill and more have been bereaved when the virus has taken their relative or friend. However, many of our members are lonely and others are overburdened when every adult in the house works and the young people are attending school online. Still others have seen their income reduced or even eliminated.
At a time like this, we need our religious community. And we have it. Perhaps now more than ever. Having never live-streamed a service before March 13, 2020, Congregation B’nai Israel holds worship services twice each week, just as we would in person — online. Adults study Torah online. Children attend Religious School online. Attendance for our Friday night services is larger and more consistent than it was before the pandemic. The biggest surprise: Our kids’ Religious School attendance is extraordinary.
You may notice that I have eschewed the word “virtual.” When we gather online for worship, we really are serving God in community. When we study online, we really are learning. When we interact with people online, we really are in community. And when our Covid Response Task Force meets on Zoom to assure that Congregation B’nai Israel never becomes that place where the virus was spread, we really are doing God’s work.
A minority of our congregants are not online. One can call into our livestream, but few do. So we call them. Fabulous volunteers, adults and teens, provided Thanksgiving pies and will deliver Hanukkah dinners. We keep tabs on people. And we serve beyond our congregation. Each year, in partnership with Little Rock School District, we deliver backpacks in August and Thanksgiving baskets in November. This year was no difference, except that volunteers who assembled the backpacks and baskets worked in small numbers, socially distanced, and always masked.
A co-chair of our Covid Response Task Force likes to point out that, unlike a retail establishment, a house of worship has no economic need to meet in person. We are not deprived of income under these circumstances. Nobody’s job depends on our gathering in person. Of the four full-time employees, three of us are busier than ever, providing and supporting programs and services in ways that are entirely new to everybody. The fourth is our valued, longtime custodian, who continues in full-time employment even with little to do. We lost a tenant and faced uncertainty, so we were grateful for a PPP loan/grant, which has helped. More significant, though, our congregants have been most generous. Knowing that the pandemic would prevent some from contributing as usual, others were extra charitable.
I am grateful that all Little Rock Jewish congregations have prioritized the safety of our members and guests. I note in particular that the local Chabad-Lubavitch center observes careful COVID-19 procedures; only a small minority of ultra-Orthodox Jews are gathering unsafely. And my faith is multiplied by the Christian, Muslim and other Central Arkansas houses of worship that are keeping the faith, even while keeping their distance.