Area Synagogues Prepare for High Holidays Amid Social Distancing

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As Parts of Maryland begin to reopen, many organizations are still taking care to avoid large gatherings. That may include synagogues for the High Holidays.

Rosh Hashanah begins the evening of Sept. 18, which means that any other year rabbis would already be preparing. Given the pandemic, local synagogues are mostly leaving the High Holidays as a giant question mark on their calendars. However, some are starting to look ahead at the different possibilities.


What Services May Look Like

Chabad of Owings Mills plans to have its High Holiday services as usual. The Chabad normally rents JCC facilities in Owings Mills, hires security, and sets the place up for nearly a thousand guests.

“We’re going to continue as always. So we will continue what we do, offer a meaningful, traditional, and uplifting service,” said Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen (aka Rabbi K) of Chabad of Owings Mills. He is planning on the services being open to the public and hopes “the virus will be a distant memory by then.”

However, Katsenelenbogen said the Chabad does have some ideas in the event that there are still restrictions come September.

Chabad of Owings Mills service. Photo by Rabbi Katsenelbogen

If there is the need for some social distancing, Katsenelenbogen said he would split up the crowd. He’s considering adding services to lessen the amount of people together.

“We always have three or four different children’s programs and a teen program, so the children are already kept separate,” he said.

He also has some backup ideas in a worst-case scenario. “If we are not allowed to gather, we may offer a outdoor blowing of the shofar. We may deliver Rosh Hashanah packages with honeycake and apple and honey and a brochure of prayers as we’ve been doing a lot of package deliveries,” he said.

In Annapolis, Kneseth Israel is in the middle of rebuilding and without a rabbi, so their norm is not exactly the norm right now anyway. But none of this will stop President Jody Goldsmith, who is eager to provide something for his 180 congregants. Lucky for him, the sanctuary seats 416.

“If we have to, we can seat hundreds if we include the auditorium, so all we have to do is put seats and spread people out. Not that we want to, but because we’re relatively small, we certainly have a solution,” said Goldsmith.

On the cautious side is Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville. In early May, the synagogue created several task forces of health care, supply chain, clergy, and business
professionals to advise the congregation on logistical and safety issues, particularly because “in our case, it’s not just the synagogue, but the school,” said Lee Sherman, interim executive director of Chizuk Amuno Congregation and Schools. He has some thoughts popping around in his head, but stated that “at this point it is really a series of scenarios. If [we] can’t do X, then we will do Y.”

While it is unlikely that Chizuk Amuno Congregation will impose restrictions that weren’t created by a governing body, the synagogue does plan to make some changes, even if everything is open.

The congregation of 1,100 historically sees 2,500 people gather for Yom Kippur in the building. The chances of that happening this fall are remote, according to Sherman. “Even if we were allowed to open up and put 1,500 in the sanctuary, the chances are some of our members would not be comfortable,” he said.

If things are open, Chizuk Amuno will likely stream its services while a smaller crowd gathers. In the scenario that social distancing is required, Chizuk Amuno would use their outdoor space.

Either way, the synagogue will send out a survey to find out what about the holidays people most connect to and are inspired by, in order to reprioritize things in the event that services cannot be traditional.

“There are things we know we know: This year’s High Holy Days will not be normative, and will require us to plan with great skill and care,” said Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg, Chizuk Amuno’s senior rabbi. “There are things we know we don’t know: where the virus will be in September, and what kinds of restrictions will be in place then. There are things we don’t know we don’t know: So much is happening in real time, that we have no idea what really to plan for.”

man in a suit standing amid empty chairs in a synagogue sanctuary
Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg. Photo by David Stuck.

Calah Congregation in Columbia is also looking at its options. “We have a vulnerable population who I don’t think will want to run back too fast,” said Lynn Green, treasurer and trustee.

She suspects the synagogue will make a decision in June or July, after the congregation of 100 is formally open again. “You have to find out when you open before you make plans, not the other way around,” she said. Besides, they definitely can’t move forward while their spiritual leader is quarantined in Florida.

Green is also on the High Holiday planning committee of Bet Aviv, which met May 21 to start plans.

For the High Holidays, Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim in Pikesville reached its capacity the last two years, and sells nearly 650 seats, according to Rabbi Shmuel
Silber. But given that Mayor Jack Young announced May 14 that Baltimore would remain under a stay-at-home order, Silber is unsure about September. However, he envisions a smaller crowd, and a virtual Yizkor service.

Nonetheless, most congregations in the Baltimore area are frozen in a “wait and see”
position, unable to make comments about plans.

Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebl is one of them, but the congregation is set to begin plans in the coming weeks.

“Most important of all is the well-being of our members and the hundreds of guests we
welcome to Hinenu for the High Holidays,” said Rabbi Ariana Katz, who is “heartbroken
at the realization that we will not be able to sway and shout together to bring in the new year in the way we have become used to, or dance ecstatically in a sweaty huddle at Neilah as we end our Yom Kippur.”

How Synagogues Are Adapting

For now, synagogues continue to gather virtually and create innovative ways to connect.
Chizuk Amuno has been able to host virtual services and classes. This, Sherman said, will change what is normal when life returns.

“We are more experienced in online services than we were three months ago, so we have a wealth of information that we never even thought about a few weeks ago,” he said. “It was initially in a very, sort of non-interactive streaming way, but we’ve learned a lot.”

Suburban Orthodox found stronger community in the strife. The synagogue has a buddy
system to ensure its elderly and isolated have a lifeline and that their needs are met.

“We are pained to be physically separated from our kehillah, our extended family. But we do our best to stay spiritually connected with daily virtual minyanim and learning,” said Silber. More than 50 participants join Suburban’s daf each morning.

Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills similarly has seen the benefits of technology, and according to Rabbi David Katz, it may change their community going forward.

“Services are more intimate in the home. There are opportunities along with the drawbacks to create the sense of community,” he said. “Shabbat traditionally is a home observance, and so we’ve become guests in each other’s homes.”

He pointed out that for those people who like to hide in the back of services, Zoom
services, where everyone is in a virtual front row, can be more challenging. “It will be interesting to see if this changes the way prayer happens in the future, when we’re no longer in quarantine, but people may want to show up by Zoom, or some other social medium,” Katz said.

Chabad of Owings Mills offers more classes than ever, too. Katsenelenbogen believes this growth will help the community come out stronger.

“If we stay with the status quo, then we haven’t learned anything, and it would be a loss of life for nothing,” he said. “But if we use this as a [springboard], which I believe will happen, the community will be better.”

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