Dr. Anthony Fauci: Synagogues could reopen for High Holy Days
Dir. of National Inst. of Infectious Diseases says US synagogues may be able to be open in the fall, but only if certain conditions are met.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told American rabbis last week that synagogues in the US may be able to be open for the Jewish High Holy Days in the fall, but only if certain conditions are met in terms of testing, contact tracing, and social distancing.
Speaking during a conference call organized by the Orthodox Union, Fauci expressed optimism that religious activities could be renewed before the end of the year.
He noted, however, that synagogues would not be able to operate in the same way as prior to the pandemic.
Fauci said that it would be a “good idea” to hold Minyan prayer services once every five days, as opposed to every day, pointing out that he did assume to understand what this would mean “from a spiritual standpoint.”
He also said he expects the virus to still be around in the fall, perhaps as part of a “second wave” of infection. For that reason, there will still need to be restrictions on mass gatherings and people will have to practice social distancing, he added.
The re-opening of synagogues over the next months could be gradual, continued Fauci, who suggested that synagogues in areas that were hit hard by the virus may need to return to operation later than those in other parts of the country.
He added that members of the population who are more vulnerable to the virus, such as elderly people and people with underlying health conditions, could be the last to join services.
The vast majority of synagogues in the US have been closed since mid-March when restrictions on large gatherings began to be implemented in states across the country. Many synagogues have been offering online services and holding virtual prayers instead of in-synagogue services.
Finally, Fauci asked those on the call to “include me” in their prayers, as he attempts to lead the country’s response to the virus.
Shavuot is about two weeks away. Traditionally there were all-night learning sessions in the synagogue. That is out this year, except for the reform and conservative who usually don’t do the all-night learning anyway. So what for the Orthodox, one solution is all night learning the day before Shavuot. After all, it is virtual anyway. If you want to stay up all night, stay up the night before.
Rosh Hashanah by Zoom?
Some synagogues are already preparing for the possibility that they could be empty during the High Holidays
— For rabbis, the end of Passover marks the beginning of a new season: planning for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the High Holidays in the fall when Jews pack synagogue sanctuaries.
This is also the time of year when the synagogues collect their dues for the year. Let’s be real. People pay their dues, because they want a seat for the high holidays. If you are not going to get a seat, will you pay your dues? Maybe this year, but I don’t think it will last. Luxury retailer Neiman Marcus has become the first department store chain to declare bankruptcy during the coronavirus pandemic. Its fall is foreboding to other chains, whose financial distress predates the health crisis, such as J.C. Penney. It is also foreboding to synagogues. Many will lose their regular customer base.
This year, that planning includes grappling with the reality that in-person services might still be impossible, depending on the course the coronavirus pandemic takes between now and then. If there is no seat, what are you paying your dues for?
American and Israel synagogues have been conducting services virtually — or not at all — for more than a month. When they closed their doors, many expected that several weeks or, at most, a few months would elapse before the pandemic was under control enough for in-person religious services to resume.
But as the weeks wear on, it is becoming increasingly clear that the resumption of normal activity remains a far-off proposition. Even as a few United States begin allowing some businesses to reopen, social distancing guidelines remain in place, and some city officials and public health experts have warned that large gatherings are unlikely to be safe until some time in 2021.
That leaves Rosh Hashanah, which this year begins Sept. 18, as a major question mark.
“We’re making the assumption that by September it’s not going to be OK to have a thousand people together in one room, so we’re taking that as a starting point,” said Rabbi Barry Leff of Herzl-Ner Tamid, a Conservative synagogue just outside Seattle on Mercer Island, Washington.
Leff says that in the coming months, the congregation, which has 750 member families, will be planning for a number of possibilities. That includes thinking about how many people would fit in the synagogue’s sanctuary — which can regularly hold up to 1,000 — if social distancing measures are enforced. It also means thinking about who would get to attend if the state lifts its stay-at-home order and allows smaller gatherings of people.
“If they say ‘Fine, you can have 50 people,’ how do you pick which 50 people get to be the ones that get to be there? Or do you set up a rotation, where people can sign up for an hour-long time slot? It can get very complicated pretty quickly,” he said.
It’s too early to say for sure what things will look like in September, said Stephen Buka, a professor of epidemiology at Brown University. Whether gathering in person will be advisable depends on a number of factors, including how the country’s testing infrastructure develops and if coronavirus infections rise again as temperatures cool.
“Right now, the requirement is that everything is virtual, and I think that wouldn’t necessarily be needed in July, and it’s too hard to say what will be needed in September,” he said.
Buka says that even if High Holiday services could be held in person, they wouldn’t be the same as in previous years. Social distancing measures would likely be needed and at-risk groups could be cautioned from going.
“I think a very likely scenario to predict at this point is that if you’re over 70, don’t congregate, stay home and that if families with young children want to come and be socially distanced that could very well be a reasonable compromise,” he said.
The rapidly changing recommendations and policies around preventing the spread of the coronavirus, which so far has killed at least 70,000 people in the United States, has some rabbis waiting to plan for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
But many other synagogues have started planning for multiple contingencies.
Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, holds eight services on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, and 3,000 people typically spend some time in the synagogue’s three spaces. “The busiest airport in America is what our building looks like,” said Rabbi Amy Schwartzman.
With that experience seeming increasingly unlikely, Schwartzman and the four other clergy members at Rodef Shalom are holding a scenario planning meeting this week to explore other possibilities — including the fact that the synagogue may have no in-person worship at all due to the coronavirus.
“We know that in the worst-case scenario we could provide the congregation with an online worship experience for all the holidays,” she said.
Again, just like on Passover, that won’t work for the Orthodox, because electronic media is not allowed.
A Little White Sin?
Motty goes to the rabbi and says, “I committed a sin and I want to know what I can do to repent.”
“What was the sin?” the rabbi asked.
“It happened just once,” Motty assures him. “I didn’t wash my hands and recite the blessing before eating bread.”
“Nu, if it really only happened once,” the rabbi said, “that’s not so terrible. Nonetheless, why did you neglect to wash your hands and recite the blessing?”
“I felt awkward Rabbi,” said Motty. “You see, I was in an UN-kosher restaurant.”
The rabbi’s eyebrows arch. “And why were you eating in an un-kosher restaurant?”
“I had no choice,” Motty said. “All the kosher restaurants were closed.”
“And why were all the kosher restaurants closed?” the rabbi asked.
Motty replied, “It was Yom Kippur.”