Disinfectant and Plexiglass: Conservative Rabbis Get Advice on High Holiday Services


The Conservative movement is urging rabbis, cantors and other prayer leaders to “consider recusing themselves from officiating” at High Holiday services if they are in a high-risk category for Covid-19.

In addition, new guidance from the movement suggests that “choral singing should not take place for this High Holiday season” unless certain conditions are met to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The guidance states that all Conservative synagogues should reopen once “governmental and medical authorities allow and where the architecture of our prayer spaces permit.”

The guidance was written by Rabbi Pamela Barmash and Toby Schonfeld, executive director of the National Center for Ethics in Health Care, and released by the Rabbinical Assembly today. It comes as some synagogues are considering returning come September to buildings that have been closed since the start of the coronavirus epidemic.

States have been easing limits on public gatherings, although rabbis across the denominational spectrum have been cautious about reopening their buildings to group worship

“Our need for community is even greater during this time of pandemic and physical distancing,” it said, “and even though holding davening [prayer] in person as a community poses a significant challenge, our role as klei kodesh [rabbis, hazzanim, and teachers helping other to experience holiness] and the needs of our communities for being together, even with physical distancing, call for us to rise to the occasion…”

Among the preventive measures synagogues should consider are: physical distancing, requiring everyone to wear a mask, hand sanitizer for everyone, physical barriers around professional and semi-professional singers and speakers, curtailing Torah processions, and reducing the proximity to one another of those who are officiating.

It suggests that the use of a microphone — standard in most although not all Conservative synagogues — might obviate or reduce muffling from a mask and says that a physical barrier such as a plexiglass or plastic shield be placed around the amud, or lectern.

The guidance says the number of choir members should be held to a minimum, that each member of the choir should be behind a physical barrier like a plexiglass or plastic shield, and that they should be separated from the choir director. Choir members must also wear a mask when outside the barrier, and a medical doctor should be consulted to determine whether the mask must be worn even behind the barrier, depending on the layout of the prayer space.

Singing and loud speech has been shown to aerosolize droplets that can spread the coronavirus.

In addition, all choir rehearsals must be done in a video-conferencing modality. The guidance stresses that this “is the only safe way to prepare repertoire prior to the High Holiday season.”

It said also that there is no need for the clergy to wear gloves because everything on the amud should be disinfected between services. But it suggests that gloves might be appropriate should there be multiple Torah readers.

“Someone who is going to read Torah could put on a fresh pair of gloves, touch the yad [pointer] and the Torah, and then discard those gloves immediately when s/he is done reading and sanitize his/her hands (in case s/he has not removed the gloves properly),” the guidance reads. “And the wearer should still be very careful not to touch one’s face while wearing gloves, as the wearer can still transfer the virus from gloves into the body through the eyes, nose and mouth.”

In an interview, Rabbi Barmash,  co-chair of the RA’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, said the Conservative movement is giving congregations different choices for services on Shabbat and the High Holidays: not hold services in order to keep Shabbat and Yom Tov technology/screen free, but conduct virtual Torah study and classes with an emphasis on the season of repentance and spiritual enhancement in the month before Rosh HaShanah and during the seven days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur; conduct services virtually using live-stream and Zoom; hold services in-person with a minyan, at the same time live streaming them and using Zoom for the rest of the congregation; or just hold services in-person either indoors or outdoors while maintaining social distancing, requiring everyone to wear a mask and surrounding the rabbi, cantor and Torah reader with plexiglass.