Synagogues open for in-person services, with precautions

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Beth Tfiloh Congregation
Beth Tfiloh Congregation (David Stuck)

How will the this year’s Rosh Hashanah services compare with last year’s?

Unlike last fall, COVID-19 vaccines are now readily available. At the same time, delta is causing COVID-19 cases to rise. Though some restrictions and COVID-19 protocols are still in place, synagogues this year are more open to in-person or hybrid services than they were in 2020.


At Beth Tfiloh Congregation last year, some parts of their 2020 Rosh Hashanah service and sermon were put online before and after the holiday, as they were not meant to be viewed on Rosh Hashanah itself, said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg. In addition, Beth Tfiloh’s in-person services last year were limited to, at most, around 350 worshipers. Attendees had socially distanced, assigned seats, and were required to wear masks.

Meanwhile, at Beth Shalom Congregation, last year’s Rosh Hashanah services were entirely virtual, said Rabbi Susan Grossman. Grossman, the cantor and a few others were in the sanctuary, while congregants watched from their computers. Grossman used about every halachic leniency she could find to shorten the service without upsetting its integrity, as the shul understood that people get tired from watching Zoom or a livestream, she said.

At Temple Isaiah, the leadership worked with a professional videographer to make prerecorded video services that included dozens of their members, to be viewed online by the wider congregation, said Rabbi Craig Axler in an email.

Compared to last year, this year at Beth Tfiloh, all of the congregation’s Rosh Hashanah services will be in person, Wohlberg said. The shul expects to have as many as 1,000 attendees for its various Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

Beth Tfiloh will have open seating this year, with specific sections for social distancing, Wohlberg said. Both vaccines and masks will be required for in-person services, though proof of vaccination won’t be required.

“We want to believe that anybody who comes to shul on Rosh Hashanah to be judged by God is not going to come there by lying about having been [vaccinated],” Wohlberg said. “So we do not require a certification. We trust our congregants.”

Beth Shalom will have hybrid services this year, with Zoom and livestreaming options, Grossman said. Services will not be pretaped, and all singing with students will be live and in person.

For in-person attendees, Beth Shalom expects capacity to be a little less than 50%. All participants will need to wear masks, and attendees age 12 and above will need to be vaccinated, which will be done on an honor system. Those above 12 who cannot be vaccinated are encouraged to watch online. Children under 12 who cannot be vaccinated may attend but must remain with their parents. Seating will be socially distanced.

“We are trying to be as flexible as we can while being sensitive to Jewish law and tradition and creating a meaningful experience for everyone, whether they’re online or whether they’re in person,” Grossman said.

At Temple Isaiah, staff organized live hybrid services, with a very limited in-person presence in the sanctuary, said Axler. He expects the majority of the congregation to watch online, and he said that their shul has made investments in the quality of their livestream and ability to provide an engaging broadcast.

In-person services at Temple Isaiah will only be for vaccinated people 12 and up, Axler said, and attendees for indoor services must wear masks. The immunocompromised are encouraged to join through the livestream options.

“My own sense is that I would prefer to hold these sacred days in person and live, whether the sanctuary was filled with 10 or 250 members of the congregation, in part because, as beautiful as our services were last year, I felt the lack of a back-and-forth energy with the live congregation,” Axler said.

Temple Isaiah has provided prayer books to those joining from home and has brought back their traditional Rosh HaShanah in the Park service, which will be held at Pavilion H of Centennial Park on Sept. 7.

To those tired of pandemic precautions, Grossman had a clear message.

“Our ancestors knew that sometimes the journey is long, and that we have to stay true to our values, even in the most difficult of times, and Judaism’s highest value is choosing life,” Grossman said. “And therefore, if you’re not vaccinated yet, and you’re eligible to be vaccinated, please get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

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