Delta variant disrupts High Holiday plans

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Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation
Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation (David Stuck)

By Jesse Berman and Shira Hanau

With COVID-19 vaccines readily available, it was finally beginning to look like synagogues could breathe easier, and that High Holiday services might be in-person again this fall.


Then the delta variant reared its head, and synagogues, such as Netivot Shalom, are taking note.

“We returned to a full masking policy due to concerns of the rising infection rates in the area and transmissibility of the delta variant,” Netivot Shalom Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz said in an email.

The synagogue has been cautious about COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. Only vaccinated congregants wearing masks were allowed to daven in the sanctuary. Unvaccinated congregants, or those reluctant to go indoors, were allowed to daven outside from the deck adjacent to the sanctuary. There was a period prior to July 26 when speakers and the chazan were allowed to remove their masks, but now that has ended, and Netivot Shalom is requiring them to mask up again.

Throughout the Baltimore area, synagogue leaders are once again making decisions about High Holiday services in the shadow of the coronavirus. Those decisions range from whether or not to hold services indoors or outdoors, on Zoom or in person or both, with masks or without, with social distancing or without and with options available only to the vaccinated or without regard for vaccination status.

The risks delta poses to vaccinated people appears to be low — most of the coronavirus vaccines have remained effective at preventing serious illness and death from the delta variant, and the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths from delta have been among the unvaccinated.

Still, even vaccinated people who have been comfortable socializing with other vaccinated people in small groups may not be comfortable attending Rosh Hashanah services with hundreds of people. And for vaccinated parents of children who are not eligible for the vaccine, the calculations may be different.

For many worshippers at this year’s High Holiday services, there will be some disappointment that services aren’t entirely “back to normal” yet. For others, the return to in-person services may be more than they are comfortable with.

Netivot Shalom has invested in air filters for their kiddush room and for their sanctuary, Kaplowitz said.

“We are monitoring the situation closely,” Kaplowitz said. “If things get real bad, it is possible that we will have to further modify our plans either by abridging services, moving outdoors, cancelling kids groups, implementing stricter distancing measures, etc.”

Beth El Congregation of Baltimore will be offering a hybrid High Holiday experience, said Rabbi Steven Schwartz in an email. Services for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and other seasonal holidays will be available both in person and virtually, said Ben Wachstein, Beth El’s executive director, in an email.

“We’re hosting young children, families, and teens in three separate but equally meaningful services filled with joy and wonder,” Wachstein said. “Our early childhood and family services will be outside and socially distanced, while the teen service will be indoors. We’re offering a virtual livestream of all family services to our Beth El members and school families.”

The High Holidays are traditionally meant to be experienced together as a community, Schwartz said.

“We’ve learned over the last year that our Beth El community can be experienced both online and on-campus,” he said. “Rest assured that whether you’re joining us in-person or virtually from your home, you’re at home with us.”

Other synagogues, such as Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation, said that, for now, they are keeping an eye on how the situation evolves.

“We are evaluating the situation on a constant basis,” said Amy Mallor, the executive director of Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation. “And the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh is our top priority.”

Parts of this story originally ran on JTA.org. jberman@midatlanticmedia.com

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