For Baltimore synagogues, it’s time to return to in-person services


After connecting with their members through screens for more than a year, many Baltimore synagogues are now bringing their communities back into their buildings.

Many say that most of their members are vaccinated, which makes it easier to reopen and makes some people more comfortable with the transition. However, at this time, many are still requiring their members to wear masks in the building to ensure everyone’s health and safety.

Each synagogue is approaching their reopening plan and transition differently, but they all have one thing in common: They are glad to see their members in person again.

Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg
Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg opens the door to Chizuk Amuno Congregation. (Courtney Cohn)

Chizuk Amuno Congregation

“Return and renewal” — that’s how Chizuk Amuno, a Conservative synagogue, describes their transition back to in-person events.

The synagogue started holding in-person services after Passover. Last week, they lifted capacity limits on in-person Shabbat services.

Since their main sanctuary seats 1,800 people, social distancing will not be an issue, which makes the transition easier, said Lee Sherman, the executive director of Chizuk Amuno.

One of the positives of having remote services was that their livestreaming has improved, and now they are able to livestream all of their services.

In addition, some of their decisions have been influenced by the congregation’s Goldsmith Early Childhood Center and Krieger Schechter Day School.

“Our top priority was to ensure that our schools could be present in the building as much as possible,” Sherman said.

Since September, they have had their students back in the building, so a sense of normalcy had started to return months ago.

“We’re looking forward to welcoming congregants back so that they can also experience the vitality of being back in person,” Sherman said.

Bais Haknesses Ohr Hachaim

Bais Haknesses Ohr Hachaim, an Orthodox congregation, resumed in-person gatherings a few months ago and had limited services, but now most services are in person.

Moshe Heideman, the shul president of Bais Haknesses Ohr HaChaim, found many silver linings while emerging from a difficult time period.

“We can maintain that renewed sense of appreciation for in-person praying and for that role that the synagogue plays in our lives and in our families that we were acutely aware of when we [had] to go without it,” Heideman said.

Even after the pandemic, they will continue using the technological advances they tapped into over the past year. This allows people to engage in lectures and programming from their homes and communicate more easily with the synagogue.

“The video segments and the different online educational programs and things that we had were eye opening, just in terms of being able to transition into those digital avenues,” Heideman said.

As an Orthodox synagogue, they also had to face the challenge of not being able to attend Zoom services on Friday nights and Saturdays, since they could not use that technology on Shabbat. When the weather was warmer, they could attend services in outdoor tents, but once it got colder, that became increasingly difficult.

Now that the congregation can have services inside again, they are looking forward to not having this same challenge next winter.

Beit Tikvah

Beit Tikvah, a Reconstructionist congregation, returned to in-person services and programs on June 26. Different families and groups were separated from each other in pods, while the synagogue provided individual kiddush bags for each group.

“We are committed to providing a safe experience,” said Miriam Winder Kelly, the volunteer treasurer at Beit Tikvah.

The in-person services were led by members of the congregation, and the rabbi returned in person to host services this past week.

They have not done any outside services, and up until recently, everything has been on Zoom.

This has been particularly challenging for Beit Tikvah because they “have an older congregation, and we do not have a lot of techies,” Winder Kelly said.

In addition to challenges navigating new technology, congregants have not gotten the same experience with their spirituality over Zoom. This was especially true with the High Holidays last year.

“I know I heard individuals saying that they didn’t really feel spiritually satisfied,” Winder Kelly said.

Socially distanced services at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation
Socially distanced services at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (Courtesy of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation)

Baltimore Hebrew Congregation

“It has been wonderful to be back in a room with people, wonderful to be able to see people, many of whom we haven’t seen in person, even if we have spoken to a lot over the year,” Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Andrew Busch said.

Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, a Reform synagogue, started having in-person Shabbat services in mid-May.

On June 25, the synagogue lifted capacity limits on services.

Additionally, they have recently brought back some events, like PJ Shabbat, where kids can come in their pajamas for a fun Shabbat service.

In order to return to normalcy, the synagogue has a reentry task force, which is made up of people with different skill sets and medical and technical consultants.

However, like many other synagogues, they have had challenges with the transition. For example, some people have had a difficult time transitioning their mindsets and becoming comfortable returning to the sanctuary, Busch said.

Also, while Busch said everyone is excited to be back, he is disappointed that, due to the face masks, “we don’t see each other smiling at the moment.”

“The joy of being together is certainly dampened a bit by the reality of masks,” Busch said.

Beth El Congregation

For Beth El Congregation of Baltimore, a Conservative synagogue, bringing back their religious school students was a priority because of how important it is for kids to learn in person. They have had a hybrid system and are looking to bringing them back fully.

They reopened the synagogue for in-person events on May 1, and beginning May 28, they began hosting Friday evening services live and in person.

The members were excited to see everyone again.

“The connection is so important,” said Ben Wachstein, executive director of Beth El.

While everyone was still wearing masks, an indication that the pandemic was not quite over, it did not take away from the reunion.

“People still streamed in wearing masks, but you could see the smile underneath,” Wachstein said.

One way they have been able to bring people together during the pandemic was by having outside services. They would like to continue outdoor services this summer even after the pandemic, since they have an “amazing campus,” Wachstein said.

“A few years ago we built a pavilion on campus, which has Wi-Fi, great lighting, and it’s a gorgeous space, so we try to do our outdoor service in there,” Wachstein said.

This is one of the many lessons Beth El has learned as a result of the pandemic.

“We are committed to, not just learning from this last year, but putting the things that we’ve learned into practice moving forward, because nothing is going back to the way it was before the pandemic,” Wachstein said.

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