Synagogues Remain Cautious about Congregants Reentering Shuls

Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (Photo by Jo Ann Windman)

Houses of worship in the Baltimore area have begun the gradual process of reopening to the public in areas that have eased restrictions, according to a report by CBS Baltimore. One natural question arises: When will Baltimore’s synagogues start to reopen?

Those hoping for a quick return to a normal shul schedule may be disappointed, as at least a few local synagogues are taking a more cautious approach to the issue.

The JT spoke with Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Chevrei Tzedek Congregation, Columbia Jewish Congregation, and Harford Chabad to get their thoughts on opening their doors.

While BHC does have “a task force and staff looking into all aspects of the decisions regarding worship, office, and other matters,” currently the shul has “no specific timetable at this time” on reentry, said Rabbi Andrew Busch.

When BHC allows reentry, congregants should not expect services to look like what they are accustomed to, Busch said, and that it would not take place all at once, that numbers would be limited, and that masks would be implemented for people’s safety. Additional protocols would likely be detailed at a later time, Busch said.

Likewise, Chevrei Tzedek also does not have a specific timeline for welcoming congregants into its space again, according to Rabbi Rory Katz. In fact, the issue becomes all the thornier due to the congregation’s location within the Edward A. Myerberg Center, a local senior center. Because the elderly are considered to be particularly at risk from COVID-19, this raises additional precautions and complications to deal with, Katz said, including getting clear permission to do so from the state and city governments.

Katz suggested that, when her synagogue does reopen, it would likely happen in phases with less than full capacity.It would also be in keeping with the guidelines of state authorities, the recommendations of health experts, and the tenets of Jewish law, which emphasizes “preserving life and being aware of putting lives in danger. So, obviously when there’s a public health crisis, there’s the potential of putting lives in danger and so we’re motivated by and trying to keep everyone as healthy as possible.”

Katz suspected that, because the senior center issue would likely mean Chevrei Tzedek will open later than many other local congregations, Chevrei Tzedek would have an opportunity to observe how other shuls are handling reopening and learn from them.

While many see the issue as a binary choice between indoor or online services, Columbia Jewish Congregation has begun taking a different approach, offering some services outdoors on their property with social distancing measures in place. CJC held their first such outdoor Shabbat service June 6 with approximately 30 in-person attendees, according to Rabbi Sonya Starr, who added they could accommodate as many as 250 in-person congregants.

CJC plans to hold two more outdoor services in August, after Starr returns from her July break, she said. Those who come are expected to bring their own chairs, prayer books, and water bottles, and family units are expected to remain six feet apart from each other in designated locations.

While CJC has begun making plans for a possible reopening this fall, Starr stressed that those plans are entirely dependent on Maryland continuing to see a downward trend regarding COVID-19 cases.

Meanwhile, Harford Chabad is informing their community that, if they are comfortable with attending in-person services, they are welcome, said Rabbi Kushi Schusterman. In the past several weeks, Harford Chabad has seen up to five congregants attend their services, Schusterman said.

Those coming to Harford Chabad are required to wear a mask, and are encouraged to maintain physical distance from those outside of their household, Schusterman said. To increase safety, no food is served, socializing is not encouraged, germicide and disinfectants are being used to clean the facilities, and hand sanitizer is being provided in much of the building.

Schusterman said he was glad to begin having in-person services again. “If you’re a person who likes people, it’s very hard to communicate with people through machines,” he said. “It’s not the same experience when you’re not in the same space.”

Other rabbis agreed that services over Zoom are not the same as ones in person.

Katz noted how she has missed “being able to have little, short, casual conversations, and the nourishment that comes from both those as well as the deep relationships that I have with people and the kinds of conversations you’re able to have when you see people,” and how such moments simply “don’t emerge in the same way when we’re not physically together.”

When asked what he most missed about holding services in person, Busch noted “the smiles and warmth of other people, having a Torah scroll in our midst, the beauty and history of BHC’s worship spaces, the schmoozing before and after.

“However, we do have warmth together online,” Busch continued. “And coming back together at first will not include many of those things, as in limited ability to schmooze. For now, we can do things online that we can’t in person.”

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