Praying together — or not

Praying together — or not

Bergen County’s Orthodox shuls tentatively explore reopening

In Netanya, Israel, socially distanced men pray in an outside minyan on April 23, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)
In Netanya, Israel, socially distanced men pray in an outside minyan on April 23, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

The idea of a local rabbi being a mara d’atra — the synagogue’s official decisor — is well-entrenched in our religious life. But rarely have our local religious leaders been asked to make decisions with such vast implications. At this time of uncertainty in virtually every aspect of our lives, the question, “When should we reopen?” has become — at the very least — a key issue.

The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, fully aware of the seriousness of the issue, issued a statement on May 24 “to provide guidance as to the resumption of tefilah betzibur” — communal prayer — “in our communities.” Noting that the governors of New York and New Jersey have now legalized “public, socially distanced outdoor gatherings,” the RCBC said minyanim — held under strict covid-conscious conditions — could begin on June 4.

“The above is contingent on the expectation that we will not see a rise in the prevalence of COVID between now and then,” the group’s statement read. “We will be closely monitoring this for the next two weeks, and beyond. If there is a rise, we will be forced to delay or cease our minyanim once again. We remain committed to the principle that safety far exceeds the obligation of communal tefilah and other activities.”

Noting further that all minyanim need to observe certain guidelines, the RCBC said they are to be “held outside, with limited numbers of people, with all participants positioned at least 6 feet apart and wearing masks.” Further, the minyans are to be organized through the synagogues and participants must register in advance. (A minyan in the quorum of 10 Jews necessary for group prayer. In the Orthodox world, the minyan is composed only of men.)

Each shul, the statement added, should determine the best way to schedule minyanim that is appropriate for that shul. “Some may start with davening once a day or limit themselves to weekdays. Others may delay all minyanim for another period of time. Some will schedule one minyan for the entire shul and some will arrange many, so that everyone can participate in person.”

The statement stressed that no one person should feel obligated to participate before feeling ready, saying “There is a strong basis of the position that even individuals who are saying kaddish can fulfill this responsibility by listening to a minyan via Zoom and answering ‘amen.’ Additionally, those who are older or at risk for severe COVID illness such as high blood pressure, obesity, or diabetes should consult with their medical doctor prior to attending minyan.”

Rabbi Kenneth Schiowitz, the president of the RCBC and the founding rabbi of Congregation Shaare Tefillah of Teaneck, said, “It was a very heavy decision to decide when to open and how to open; we do not know what the future will hold and we do not know what will be the full impact of our decisions.”

While there was no one factor prompting the RCBC’s most recent statement, Rabbi Schiowitz said that since the group had begun the closure, “we felt that we needed to decide when to end it and give guidance.” He noted that in March, when the organization called for shuls to close, “There was no room for nuance. Everything was shut down.” Now, however, there’s more room for interpretation, and shuls are forming committees to discuss the question.

Rabbi Schiowitz said that the RCBC has been in constant contact with the medical community and has been guided largely by its input. Because, he said, “halacha gives incredible weight to medical concerns,” it has made sense to take a cautious approach. The RCBC has also paid close attention to the decisions of the Orthodox Union, which suggested June 4 as a day to reopen.

Its own choice of June 4 as the starting date reflected the fact that “it’s not a big difference” whether it’s the 4th or the 5th. Our statement “left it open whether to begin on the 4th or after the 4th,” Rabbi Schiowitz said. “My congregation will start on Monday. Some will start on Shabbat or in a week and a half. “

On the issue of compliance, Rabbi Schiowitz said that for the most part, he believes, there’s been a high level of compliance with the RCBC’s March decision. “It’s a tricky business,” he said. “I don’t assume there was 100 percent compliance.” As with all rulings, “you aim for a high percentage. We’re trying not to overreach or over-legislate. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone held a minyan. But the goal is to stop the spread by having a high level of distancing. We don’t need 100 percent. It’s the impact of aggregate behavior.”

Asked if there were a number of covid cases that might be identified as a spike, which might cause the RCBC to rethink its latest decision, Rabbi Schiowitz said, “We’re struggling with the same question. There’s no magic number. We constantly speak to doctors and they will immediately call with any concerns. We are certainly going to revisit the issue if there is any concern.”

Significantly, the RCBC statement included the provision that “These decisions [i.e., regarding reopening] will be left to the discretion of each rav and shul.”

Rabbi Yosef Adler, who leads Teaneck’s Congration Rinat Yisrael, said that his shul has begun the process of organizing minyanim, planned to begin on June 4. The idea is to have these services in backyards on weekdays and Shabbat, “but to begin slowly,” he said. “There will be no Torah reading, and the service will be a little accelerated.” Shabbat services are likely to be reduced from three hours to an hour and a half, in accordance with recommendations from medical professionals.

“There will be no sermons, and no drashot” — explanations of the Torah reading — he said, and participants will have to register, wear masks, and be socially distanced. No more than 19 people will be allowed. The synagogue will help members find the minyan closest to their home.

Governor Phil Murphy gave the green light to outdoor gatherings two weeks ago, Rabbi Adler said, and “legally, we could have had a minyan then. But we decided to be patient” and follow medical advice, which urged that such actions be delayed for another two weeks. And it is right for the government to be involved in these decisions, Rabbi Adler added. “They’re not doing it to dominate religion but to provide medical safety for all their constituents — not singling out Jews or Christians but taking care of the welfare of all its citizens.”

He also noted that his synagogue has “made an effort to keep people together” during the quarantine, with nightly zoom get-togethers to recite psalms for people who are ill. Rinat also offered communal virtual Yizkor services before both Pesach and Shavuot.

In the email he sent to congregants last week, detailing the shul’s reopening policy, Rabbi Adler clarified that even when minyans do begin, they cannot be open to everyone — and that he is among those people who will be ruled out. “Every doctor we consulted stated that attendance should be limited to those not in the high risk category,” he wrote in the email. “That means that if you are over 60, are immunocompromised, suffer from diabetes, obesity or have other serious medical conditions, you should not attend these minyanim. Consequently, I personally will not be permitted to join any of the minyanim.”

So far, at least two shuls have chosen opposite courses.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, the religious leader of Teaneck’s Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, notified his members that “CBY plans on reopening off-premises, private minyanim next Thursday, June 4, beginning with Mincha and Maariv.”

The first order of business, he wrote “is to identify hosts to volunteer their backyards for use on a daily basis. The backyards should be large enough to accommodate 18 people, each spaced at a minimum of four amot (seven feet).” He repeated the RCBC requirement that people register for minyanim and “not bounce from minyan to minyan; this, to maintain control over numbers, and especially to be able to inform participants if, r”l, one person contracts an illness that necessitates that the others be quarantined.”

Hosts, he wrote are responsible for ensuring that the safety protocols are followed, because “We are still living in a world where the Coronavirus can potentially spread again and wreak havoc, as we unfortunately have seen. But if the guidelines are followed precisely, the risk of contagion is significantly reduced.”

Repeating the RCBC statement that no one should feel pressured to daven in a minyan, he added, “The usual exhortation to daven b’tzibur will again be sounded sometime in the future — but not now.” He urged anyone who is immuno-compromised to continue davening at home and also suggested that people over 65 consult with their physicians and receive approval before joining a minyan.

Minyans, he wrote, must be held outdoors and canceled if it rains. “Under no circumstances can the minyan be moved indoors. Under no circumstances may non-family members enter the host’s home, even just to use the bathroom.” Additionally, the minyan should consist of no more than 18 people.

Rabbi Pruzansky’s statement set forth in detail rules regarding masks and distance from the Torah reader, among many other specifics, and instructed that participants bring their own siddurim and chumashim. Additionally, “No food, liquor, repast, buffet, meal, nosh, tikun, collation or smorgasbord is allowed to be served or consumed under any circumstances.”

Rabbi Pruzansky concluded with the admonition that he is “not blind to the reality that some people have already formed private minyanim against the recommendation of the RCBC. I implore those who have to follow the guidelines promulgated here. I write this not to send any signals but rather to spread awareness of the prevalent dangers. I could omit this point, but the concern for pikuach nefesh demands that it be included.”

Unlike Rabbi Pruzansky, Rabbi Daniel Fridman, explaining his reasons in a long and detailed statement, decided that his congregation, the Jewish Center of Teaneck, would not resume minyanim on June 4.

After paying extravagant tribute to the RCBC and the process through which it reached its decision, Rabbi Fridman explored certain key issues.

First, looking at the role of government in determining the permissibility of gatherings, he wrote, “while a social gathering proscribed by the government during a pandemic is, eo ipso, halachically prohibited in the strictest possible terms, the inverse proposition, that is, the legal sanctioning of a certain practice, has no bearing at all as to whether it is consistent with halakhic norms of safeguarding and preserving health.

“It it is quite simply a statement of fact that the government has a manifestly different agenda with respect to public policy in a pandemic than halakhah; the former, at its best, focuses on ensuring that the rate of infection and death does not overrun the hospital system (‘flattening the curve’), and balancing this public health interest with economic productivity. The latter concerns itself with the preservation of life, based on the axiom that one human life represents an entire world, and that disregard for one’s own health and the health of others constitutes a grave desecration of the Divine name.”

Discussing the need and advisability of praying in a communal setting, Rabbi Fridman offers a detailed analysis of the sources, concluding first that there is no obligation to pray in this manner and second, that “While it is true that praying with a quorum would enable the recitation of those passages, including kaddish and kedushah, that are linked to sanctification of the Divine name, it is equally true that one who is involved in the Torah level sanctification of God’s name associated with protecting his life and that of others, by refraining from unnecessary entry into communal settings in a pandemic context, is, at the absolute minimum, doing at least as much to sanctify the name of the Almighty. In my judgment, he is doing more, but, I do not believe one can reasonably dispute that it is at least as much.”

Making it clear that he is offering his decisions on behalf of “our community alone,” Rabbi Fridman further notes that “For our community, I believe that these communal prayer settings will create pressure for individuals for whom it is dangerous to come to such experimental prayer settings to disregard medical advice and to assume inappropriate risks.

“Alternatively, even if individuals should withstand such pressure …. should we not be concerned for the impact on their mental health, being made to feel as ‘second class citizens,’ in the words of more than one congregant? Should we not be concerned for the shame that will be felt by those who should not come due to their weight? Is there no relevance at all in our situation to Moshe’s response to Pharaoh’s query as to who would participate in the first Jewish act of communal worship, ‘we shall go with our young and with our old?’

“Does participating in a communal minyan which is neither obligatory, nor, in my view, advantageous relative to private prayer, justify these concerns, especially if a major part of the impetus to join in communal prayer is rooted in seeking the welfare of one’s neighbor?

“For our community alone, it seems to me that, on the basis of these considerations alone, such communal prayer is not obligatory, not advisable, and indeed, problematic, and therefore, should be strongly discouraged.

“As such, for our community alone, in light of all of the above considerations, we will not consider opening minyanim until at least four weeks following Memorial Day, June 22nd. We will be in constant touch with our medical team regarding the trends in disease, as we have been since the arrival of COVID-19 in our area.

“It is my judgment that such minyanim, under present conditions, for our shul community alone, until that time (June 22nd) are not obligatory, not advisable, and not permissible.”

Rabbi Fridman stressed, “I reiterate that this guidance has no relevance whatsoever for anyone outside of our shul community, and that this ruling is issued as an expression of the mandate given by the RCBC to each individual Rav. I reiterate once again the deep love and respect I have for each member of our rabbinical body, and the full confidence each member of the community must have in the judgment of his or her Rav in this matter.”

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