Some synagogues in Riverdale and Teaneck, N.J., are preparing to reopen as soon as next Thursday, but most other synagogues throughout the area are waiting before letting worshippers back in.
The announcements came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released reopening guidelines for houses of worship and President Donald Trump on Friday threatened to “override” governors if they did not follow the new federal recommendations.
In a statement last Friday, the multi-denominational, 18-member Riverdale Jewish Community Partnership of synagogues and other organizations said it would begin preparations to reopen for “10-person or less organized services or gatherings on Thursday, June 4” — heeding New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s statement last week permitting socially distant gatherings of 10 persons or fewer for religious services.
“Some of our partners may choose to wait beyond that time, but we will not begin to reopen any sooner,” the Riverdale partnership wrote. “We strongly advise that this decision extend to private indoor and outdoor religious gatherings until guidelines and protocols have been developed.”
One Reform congregation, Riverdale Temple, said it will wait until its in-house committee gives the green light, according to its spiritual leader, Rabbi Thomas Gardner.
“As long as we can have only 10 people it is very awkward to have a service,” he told The Jewish Week. “I don’t want to be put in a position of having to say, ‘You can come and you can’t.’ I’m also concerned about congregational singing [which can spread the virus further than the socially acceptable distancing of six feet]. And every insurance company is saying they will not pay if someone at our service contracts Covid-19.”
“We would love to be together, but one of the things on my mind is what happens if we get together for services and somebody gets sick and dies,” he said. “That will be on my conscience. On the other hand, I know it is very important for people to go to synagogue and feel their community is functioning. We do Zoom our Friday night and Shabbat services. It’s meaningful and great to see everyone’s faces, but something is missing by not being there in person.”
Rabbi Gardner said the partnership plans to ask Cuomo to increase the number of congregants so that it would “make it more worthwhile to open.”
He said he had heard that one Orthodox congregation is planning to open with a minyan of 10 men. But to ensure there is a minyan, a dozen men would be asked to come and two would remain outside just in case one or two of the men chosen for the minyan were unable to make it at the last minute.
The debate comes as the number of new coronavirus hospitalizations across New York State dropped to the lowest level since the pandemic’s onset, although there were 73 deaths on Memorial Day and 200 new cases statewide.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Yosef Adler of Congregation Rinat Yisrael, an influential synagogue in Teaneck, said in an email Monday that his congregation will begin holding outdoor minyanim effective the afternoon of June 4. Based on guidelines from the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, he said no more than 15 worshippers would be permitted for each minyan and each seat would be spaced six feet apart. No bathroom facilities will be available and those planning to hold a minyan in their own backyards should first let the synagogue know.
“Every doctor we consulted stated that attendance should be limited to those not in the high-risk category. 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,” he wrote. “Consequently, I personally will not be permitted to join any of the minyanim.”
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As more states began lifting restrictions and some congregants began clamoring for in-person services, most but not all Jewish leaders around the country have rejected imminent reopenings.
After New York State began allowing gatherings of up to 10 people, a group of 27 rabbis on Long Island sent a letter to congregants reiterating their decision to wait at least 14 days before resuming services.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in a statement last Friday that the Reform movement “will look to the wisdom of medical professionals to guide us on when reopening our synagogues can be done safely.”
By contrast, the Orthodox National Council of Young Israel issued a statement Tuesday saying houses of worship should be “treated no differently than any other essential enterprise. … If other businesses are being permitted to begin reopening in some limited capacity, synagogues should also be allowed to resume religious services in a circumscribed fashion.”
Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said in a statement that “congregations may slowly increase [in-person] activities” in coming days, starting with “small groups for prayer or life cycle events, with appropriate measures in place (distancing, masks, gloves, etc.), and with others present via Zoom or other streaming technologies.”