Pandemic holidays, part II
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Pandemic holidays, part II

For a second year, synagogues face a covid-tinged season. How are they coping?

Last year, synagogues were faced with the question of how they possibly could hold High Holy Day services.

It’s hard to remember, but last year we were staring into a fog-shrouded, time-warped, virus- spiked future. We hoped for a vaccine but had no reason to think we’d get one any time soon. We had nothing solid to look forward to. We were locked in our homes, either alone or with a very few others. 

We had no map. It was an uncharted, weird new world.

Rabbis, cantors, and lay leaders had to figure out the logistical challenges of somehow getting the messages of the holidays to their congregations. Everyone was variously constrained by halacha, architecture, finances, and demographics. And then there were the spiritual and emotional challenges — how do you make a community out of necessarily scattered, lonely, scared, bored people?

But they did it. It happened. Last year’s holidays were odd and lonely, but they provided hope and connection.

That was then.

It seems that most of us assumed that the next year — that’s this year! — would be normal, or had given up on looking ahead, or perhaps combined those two ideas into an imaginary normal, floating in some vague new year.

By spring, most of us were vaccinated, and were looking forward to the virus-free summer of maskless recovery that was going to be marked by a near-normal Fourth of July.

And then the combination of the Delta variant and the stubbornly unvaccinated changed everything.

We could no longer have the nearly normal services we’d all hoped for. We couldn’t do what we did last year either, because the situation had changed too much. Instead, we had to deal with the uncertainties of this hopefully transitionary and still uncharted time.

Last year, we at the Standard talked to a randomly selected group of rabbis about their plans for the holidays. This year, we checked back with most of them – the vagaries of scheduling meant that we couldn’t get them all, and certainly there are far more rabbis and congregations in our area, with fascinating stories to tell, than we could reach — and listened to their plans.

Rabbi Zev Goldberg leads the Young Israel of Fort Lee, and he also is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County. Those are Orthodox institutions.

Last year, the RCBC responded extraordinarily quickly to the pandemic, pioneering tactics in ways that others followed. It worked with doctors and scientists, prioritized science, figured out how to behave in ways that adhered to both science and halacha, and strongly urged its member rabbis and their congregations to act in the service of saving lives, both their own and everyone else’s. 

This year, Rabbi Goldberg said, the RCBC is “taking the approach that every shul manages on its own. In March of 2020, there was so little information. We were so overwhelmed. There was the sense that we were going to act in unison and do something really drastic.” They did; they closed the shuls and kept them closed for months. “We were guided by the Torah principle about the need to save lives.

“Now, we have a lot more information,” he continued. “Every shul has a medical committee. We are far more informed now. Every shul is equipped to make its own decision. Every shul has a different population, different architecture, different space limitations. Because of all those factors, we have made the decision that every shul will be guided by its own medical committee and will decide its own policy.”

Last year, Rabbi Goldberg’s own shul offered some Rosh Hashanah services indoors and some outdoors. They were short, they were socially distanced, and everyone had to be masked. They were offered with a sense of balancing peril with the need to be together.

This year will be different. The shul’s space has been divided so that people can find their own degrees of comfort or risk. Only people who are fully vaccinated are allowed into the sanctuary, he said. “We’re not asking for proof; we’re going based on trust.”

The sanctuary is divided into two spaces. Downstairs, in the main space, “We are not mandating masks,” Rabbi Goldberg said. “It’s by personal choice. We have many who wear masks, and many who don’t. Our medical committee feels comfortable with that; we are going with the CDC regulations, which are that masks are recommended but not mandatory.”

And then, he said, “we are providing a space in the balcony that will be socially distanced and masks will be mandatory.”

There will a mechitza downstairs and another one upstairs, so that both approaches, the more lenient and the more stringent, will be available to everyone. 

Young Israel of Fort Lee will not have any outdoor services. “The logistics just didn’t work out for that,” Rabbi Goldberg said.

The service will be normal. “Last year made us appreciate being able to have a full-bodied service this year,” Rabbi Goldberg said. “The fact that we will sing and have a regular-length sermon and a full-length service will become more meaningful after not having access to them last year.

“The privilege of being together in one room — that is remarkable,” he added.

Rabbi Zev Goldberg

Rabbi Elchanan Weinbach leads Congregation Shaarey Israel of Rockland County in Montebello; the synagogue is unaffiliated but has its roots in the Orthodox world.

“We will have masks and a larger degree of separation in our seating than in a normal year, with family pods,” Rabbi Weinbach said. “You must have proof of vaccination to pick up your tickets, and you must have a ticket to go through security, which will be tighter than we have had historically.

“Unlike last year, when the service was remarkably condensed, we will run a more normal service. It will be just a little bit shorter, now that everyone realizes that it can be shorter.

“The cantor is quite happy that he can perform a normal service, and the rabbi is very happy that he can give a normal sermon.”

Rabbi Joseph Prouser leads Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, a Conservative synagogue in Franklin Lakes. He did not allow his synagogue to use Zoom or livestream any services last year — or for that matter at all. His understanding of halacha does not allow it.

His holiday service “has changed from last year’s,” he said. “Then we had a dramatically abbreviated service, all outdoors. This year we will follow the same pattern for an abbreviated service, but we will have a full Torah service. Last year I took the Torah out, held it, and taught a Mishnah about the Cohen Gadol, and that was the Torah service. This year, we’ll have a bona fide Torah service outside.

“We’re doing two shifts; an early service outside, before the day gets too hot, and then the same thing all over again inside the sanctuary, with pretty conservative social distancing. We gave people a choice, and the vast majority of them want to be outside. We will probably have 30 people inside, tops.”

That’s a change in plans, Rabbi Prouser added. He’d hoped to be able to have everything inside, but that was before the Delta variant struck.

Rabbi Elchanan Weinbach

So why have it inside at all? “Because we are trying to meet everyone’s perceived needs,” he said. “Some people can’t deal with being outside. Some can’t deal with being inside. We want to provide a safe service for everyone.”

Everyone will have to be masked for indoor services, he said; outside, masks are not required, although they are suggested. There will be distanced seating outside; people will be asked to sit four cubits apart, Rabbi Prouser said. Signs will make that request, along with a translation. Four cubits equal six feet. He requests that everyone either be vaccinated or have had a test within 72 hours, but he’s not asking for proof. “It is an older congregation, and people have been very careful,” he said. “The number of non-vaccinated people is not nothing, but it is just one or two households.

“We know our people.”

It’s been a hard year, Rabbi Prouser said. “We went through a whole year of in-person services, with varying levels of precaution, inside, outside. I am grateful that we chose to do it that way. There is great value in being in person and having human contact, even at a distance. The congregation valued it, and it served people’s religious needs, and in many cases their social needs as well.”

Rabbi Arthur Weiner leads the Jewish Community Center of Paramus/ Congregation Beth Tikvah, a traditional Conservative synagogue. 

Not only did no one think last year that they’d have to hold a second year of pandemic holiday services, “many of us made plans for the holidays in April, May, and June, when things were looking better, and then we had to readjust as conditions deteriorated throughout the summer,” Rabbi Weiner said. 

“We had a plan that prioritized safety and our desire to be in our building on the High Holidays. We resumed services at the beginning of June, and we made the decision that everyone had to be vaccinated. No exceptions. And everyone had to be masked. No exceptions. We asked people to send proof-of-vaccination cards and waivers.” 

Now, for the holidays, services will be inside, with everyone vaccinated, masked, and maintaining a social distance from each other. “If necessary, we will limit the number of people we allow in the building,” Rabbi Weiner said. “Services will be shorter than usual; we successfully abbreviated them last year, and we are doing the same this year.”

Rabbi Joseph Prouser

Although Rabbi Weiner has not allowed livestreaming during the year until recently, his shul livestreamed holiday services last year and will do it again this year.

“This is an interesting time,” he said. “The pandemic has taken its toll. A synagogue is a retail shop; like stores, we thrive on the building of relationships. That’s much harder to do over Zoom. But synagogues like mine are working hard to maintain those relationships.

“We understand that the synagogue is vital, and the only way to ensure the future of the American Jewish community, so we’ve been all hands on deck.”

What does he hope for next year? “We should have a boring year,” Rabbi Weiner said.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein leads Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson. 

The situation keeps changing, she said. “As of today, we are doing a combination of things to embrace as many people as possible. We’re having a tent service outdoors for junior congregation and using it for a family service and shofar blowing. We have a stream at the end of the parking lot, so we can do tashlich there.

“We will add shofar blowing outside for people who are not comfortable inside. We are having a vastly reduced capacity inside — 150 max — and everyone must be vaccinated and masked. If we reach a certain threshold of attendance, then we will hold a second indoor Yizkor service, because my sense is that for some people it is very important to be in shul for Yizkor.

“On top of that, we are also livestreaming, and on top of that we are doing a few things on Zoom in order to make them more participatory

Rabbi Arthur Weiner

“I want to acknowledge that this year is even harder than last year,” she continued. “Last year we were about six weeks out when we realized that there was no way that we could gather in person. It was a scramble, but we knew what we were facing. With extraordinary effort from volunteers and also from the professionals we hired, we made an elaborate production. We had 90 different synagogue members film something that all got integrated into a whole. It was amazing.

“This year, we had much less time when we realized we had to change our plans, and nerves were just so much more frayed by this time in the pandemic. It is all so much harder.

“I feel that a big part of the work of the High Holidays is the lovingkindness with which people approach imperfect choices.

“We came to the realization pretty early on that there was not going to be a perfect solution, that anything that solved certain problems caused others. If you were going to be inclusive, with everyone in the building, not everyone would feel safe. And if you excluded the unvaccinated, then they would feel excluded. And even if you make it as safe as safe can be, there can be breakthroughs.

“So even under the best circumstances, if you leave the house at all you are subject to some risk. And on top of that, there is angst, legitimate angst, about what is inherently a stressful situation. And then the politics on top of that make it even more difficult.

“So we are just in an extraordinarily difficult position — and by we, I mean everybody, the clergy, the lay leadership, the congregation, the rabbinical organization — everybody is in a difficult position. And that really sets us up for this to be part of the spiritual work of the High Holidays.

“How can we approach broad issues in a way that brings people together instead of dividing them? And if we can model doing that, then I think it’s been a successful holiday.”

“Man plans, God laughs,” Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El of Closter said. “God must be cracking up right now.”

Rabbi Debra Orenstein

When he went to Israel in June, as he does every June, “Our plan was that we would be back inside, and have everything somewhat normal,” Rabbi Kirshner, who is Conservative, said. “We still would stream, but it wouldn’t be a perfect stream. It wouldn’t be as high intensity as it was last year.

“I came home on August 2, and everything had changed dramatically. We pivoted 180 degrees. There will be no indoor services at all.

“Our temple had used a lot of resources – money and elbow grease — and we bought three tents that abut each other. In non-covid times they could hold about 2,600 people; now they will hold about 1,400. So we’ll have one service outdoors.

“We erected our sukkah early, and the youth services will be there.” (Temple Emanu-El has a lot of land.) 

“We have large TV monitors throughout the tents, so if you are far away you can see and hear. We have a camera crew coming to do streaming, so it will be high level. We ordered 2,500 bottles of water, and there will be hand fans and hand sanitizers at each seat.” The synagogue also is providing masks to anyone who wants one. “Masks are welcomed but not mandated,” Rabbi Kirshner said.

Everyone at the service who is 16 or older must be vaccinated. “They have to upload their information in advance,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “We do that for Shabbat too. We respect your choice not to be vaccinated, but you have to respect my choice that you can’t come to in-person services.”

There’s been a great deal of interest in coming to in-person services, he added. “Ten days out, 1,100 people have reserved.”

It’s important, Rabbi Kirshner said. “I don’t know how a synagogue can withstand two years of not gathering. It’s already done incalculable harm; another year could be irreparable. It’s starting to get dangerous.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

“Last year, we said that your best service will be from your living room. That was clear. And now we are saying that the best one will be in person. You will get it at home — but it’s best in person.”

Rabbi Ariel Russo leads Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack, and Joe Zweig is the shul’s president. Together, they discussed Sons of Israel’s plans.

Last year, there were very small, very spartan indoor services; most of it was online. 

This year will be different. There will be two sets of services. The inside one will be for fully vaccinated people; it will be a traditional Conservative service. The outdoor service is for four groups — the unvaccinated; young families, which include children too young to be vaccinated; people who are vaccinated but still feel more comfortable outdoors, and the religiously, or at least liturgically, curious. That’s because the service will be “a little different,” Mr. Zweig said. “The leaders will be doing some innovative things.”

One of those things is something “we’re calling a kavannah service,” Rabbi Russo said. “The two lay leaders are very spiritual people; they will be leading a service based on niggunim” — wordless songs — “and intentions. They will set it up so they are more in the headspace of Rosh Hashanah. They will loosely follow the liturgy but the focus will be more on the spiritual meaning behind it. They will do less liturgy to gain more spiritual depth.

“That service will be an hour before the traditional Ma’ariv service, so people can attend both.”

Not only does that provide participants the chance to go to both services, it’s also practical. “There are no lights in the tent,” Mr. Zweig said.

There is some good that has come from the pandemic, he continued.

Rabbi Ariel Russo

“I have been really impressed with the fact that over the course of the past year, because we have had to do more outside the box, we have gotten a significantly more enthusiastic response from the congregation. Programs that would normally attract smaller numbers are getting more. That’s in part because it’s easier on Zoom — some but not all of our programs are on Zoom — but there is a sense of being able to share experiences with each other, and there seems to be an investment in making sure that CSI remains viable during this time.

“One testament to this is that our membership has grown during the past year.”

Part of that is because the Haverstraw-based Congregation Sons of Jacob closed, and some of its members went to CSI, but “that doesn’t account for all of it,” Mr. Zweig said.

“Last year we were in crisis mode,” Rabbi Russo said. “Everything was unfolding, and we were just kind of making it up as we went. We were trying to create experiences that would be meaningful for people who were physically present and those who were virtual. It’s hard to meet both of those needs at the same time.

“It’s different this year. We have had more time to plan. The crisis is less acute. We were able to plan the tent services, which not only will benefit us now, in the time of covid, but could be a positive model for many years to come.

“We learned from last year what worked and what didn’t work. We were able to pivot and adjust, and to do it carefully and thoroughly, taking into account that our people want to gather. We had to figure out how to respond to that in a way that doesn’t compromise safety.”

Mr. Zweig concluded with a heartfelt wish. “I wish that there was a bracha for lemonade, like there is for wine,” he said; he was talking about the idea that when God gives you lemons, you make lemonade. “CSI has created a lot of lemonade over the last year,” he said ruefully.

Rabbi Dr. David Fine leads Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center; it’s a Conservative synagogue in Ridgewood. Last year, Temple Israel’s holiday services were at a day camp in the woods; the congregants who weren’t comfortable going there watched them on line. This year, “in the late spring, the majority of the congregation said they would prefer in-person services at Temple Israel.” So that’s what the shul arranged. By the time the Delta variant upended their plans, it was too late even to consider going back to the woods. “But a significant number of people wouldn’t be comfortable indoors, so we had four options,” Rabbi Fine said. “Indoor regular services, requiring masks, not going above 50 percent of capacity, in the morning. A traditional outdoor service, in the afternoon.” The morning service will stop before the Torah service, which will be done in the afternoon, under the shul’s tent. The third option is an outdoor family service, led by a rabbinical student. And the fourth option is a livestream.

Rabbi Dr. David Fine

“Our policy is constantly changing,” Rabbi Fine said. “We require masks; we just amended the policy to require proof of vaccination for anyone 12 or older entering the building for services. In lieu of vaccination, we will admit you with a negative PCR test done within 72 hours.

“On both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we will ask for the proof at the door, along with the High Holiday ticket.”

Why allow people over 11 to show the results of a PCR test instead of proof of vaccination? Why allow children below 12, who cannot be vaccinated, in at all?

“We have always approached everything trying to be as inclusive as possible. That has been our approach in terms of intermarried families, in terms of LGBTQ rights, in terms of gay marriages, in terms of inviting a non-Jewish spouse to stand with the Jewish spouse on the bimah,” he said. “I don’t want to exclude children from the sanctuary. I want children to know that this is always a place where they belong. I don’t want to exclude people who are not vaccinated, for whatever reason, but I also don’t want to exclude people who feel uncomfortable because there might be people who are unvaccinated there.

“I also made the point that it is the RA position that it is a requirement of Jewish law to be vaccinated if you are eligible.” The Rabbinical Assembly represents Conservative rabbis. “The RA is not unique in that regard, except for outliers on the extreme right. It is our mission to support Jewish law. We don’t necessarily enforce it.

“A synagogue needs to be inclusive, not exclusionary. The wider our doors are open, the more we are fulfilling our mission, and the more sustainable we are.

“A synagogue is supposed to be a place where everyone can come together. We have to weigh it against safety. At the same time, you don’t want to turn a synagogue into a fortress. We have to find a way where we are welcoming, and we also take reasonable precautions for public safety.”

Rabbi Fine plans to hold Neilah services, which mark the emotional as well as temporal climax of the holidays, outside. “Last year, we did it in the parking lot, and it was incredibly moving.”

Rabbi Noah Fabricant

The service talks about the gates of repentance shutting. It’s a time of transition. Everyone at the service is at this liminal time and place, alone and also together. “You are talking about the sun setting, and being outside during Neilah, being able to experience the setting of the sun made it much more real.

“It is about the closing of the gates. Everyone is in the parking lot. I am standing on the steps to the building, standing before the gates. They are closing. We put the temporary ark right in front of the doors there.

“It was incredibly moving.”

And then, echoing a sentiment expressed by all the rabbis who planned outside services, “it better not rain,” Rabbi Fine said. “We will do it again, as long as it does not rain on us.”

Rabbi Noah Fabricant leads Kol Dorot: A Reform Jewish Community, which was created two years ago from the merger of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter and Temple Beth Or in Washington Township. It’s about to move into its new home on Kinderkamack Road in Oradell, a move that the pandemic delayed. That means that Rosh Hashanah has an extra meaning for the community; it will be the year when its new life finally will begin.

Last year, the synagogue offered carefully pre-recorded services with high production values. This year, “we’re doing a combination of in-person outdoor services and a virtual livestreaming option,” Rabbi Fabricant said. “We basically made those decisions — that there would be a livestreaming option for those who were not able or willing to attend in person, and then all of our in-person services would be outdoors. Then, it was just a question of figuring out the right venue.”

That venue never would have been the new shul building, Rabbi Fabricant said. “We are not building it for the holidays. We intentionally built it to serve us during the year, knowing that we would always have to find an alternative location during the holidays.

“It’s just that we didn’t intend that venue to be outdoors.”

The outdoor venue turned out to be the Deer Kill Day Camp in Suffern; its owners are members of Kol Dorot. “It has a fantastic facility, and most importantly for us it has a large covered pavilion that allows us to be outside, but still protected from the weather.”

The synagogue will do the services that tend to attract the biggest crowds twice, so that neither will be excessively full. “We decided to require masks at our childrens’ and family services, where there will be large numbers of unvaccinated children, and we decided not to require masks for the main services. Instead, we’ll leave it to members.”

Similarly, Kol Dorot isn’t requiring that anyone be vaccinated for the holidays, although it will make that demand once it returns to indoor services. 

People will sit in pods, but as far apart from other pods, as possible, but “although we will provide as much distance as we can, we can’t guarantee six or even three feet,” Rabbi Fabricant said. “It depends on the weather, and on how many people attend.”

This covid year, Kol Dorot has held services and meetings outdoors whenever it could, and on Zoom when it couldn’t. “We have held services in the parking lot of our building. A lot of them have been in Memorial Field in Oradell, and a lot of our b’nai mitzvahs have been in people’s front yards and their backyards,” Rabbi Fabricant said.

He found that having those coming-of-age services outside at home “was surprisingly nice. I think that families really enjoyed it when I would turn up with a Torah scroll in my car, and then they would see me walking up their driveway with it. People walking their dogs would stop and look. The families enjoyed having the Torah scrolls and the services in their backyards.”

Rabbi Fabricant has learned a lot during this last year, including the need for flexibility, and he’s seen things change. “Last year we pre-recorded everything for the High Holidays,” he said. “They were very big production videos. This year will not be that.

“We are livestreaming the videos in real time, as they happen. I have told my community that the video production is not going to be the same as it was last year, when all of our efforts went into the online version, but I hope that the tradeoff will be that it will be more heimisch, more intimate, more like being with the community.

“One of the things that we couldn’t reproduce last year was the feeling of having people around you,” he continued. “That is such a huge part of the experience of the holidays — seeing the faces of the people that you recognize but see only a few days every years, and seeing the faces that you don’t recognize at all. Last year, we really missed being in a crowd.

“We’re going to missing that this year too, to a great extent, but we are trying, as hard as we can, to create that feeling.”

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