As arc of pandemic heads the right way, synagogues start to reopen their doors

Rabbi+Jeffrey+Abraham+holds+open+the+door+to+the+sanctuary+at+Congregation+B%E2%80%99nai+Amoona%2C+which+has+been+holding+services+at+limited+capacity+since+October.+Photo%3A+Bill+Motchan

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham holds open the door to the sanctuary at Congregation B’nai Amoona, which has been holding services at limited capacity since October. Photo: Bill Motchan

ERIC BERGER, ASSOCIATE EDITOR

Rabbi Jim Bennett

Rabbi James Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth has officiated more funerals over the past year than he has at any time since he started his career in 1984. 

Many of those were due to COVID-19. 

And while Bennett said he is excited to hold in-person services Friday night at the Reform synagogue for the first time in more than a year, he also recognizes that “mental anguish, anxiety, mental illness, loss, grief, fear, trauma” remain among congregants.

“I think we have to be patient with each other as we relearn and return to healthy human interactions once again,” said Bennett, whose congregation will hold services in its outdoor garden, or in its sanctuary in the event of inclement weather. 

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Local Jewish congregations do not appear to be gathering in the same way as before the pandemic. But now that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed its guidelines to allow vaccinated people to gather indoors without masks, Shaare Emeth and other local synagogues are again cautiously opening their doors for Shabbat services.

Central Reform Congregation is also holding in-person services this weekend for the first time since the pandemic started.

Rabbi Daniel Bogard

Rabbi Daniel Bogard said: “Though there are some amazing things that have happened in terms of community during the pandemic — the people we have been able to reach and connect with and form genuine authentic community with — I don’t want to say that online is less than, but it’s not the same. I am really excited for those first moments of being together.”

There is no uniformity in approach to reopening among synagogues. The organizations are working through the same questions as public institutions in other parts of life. Should we just gather outside? Should we continue to require masks indoors? Should we ask for proof of vaccination? Should we limit capacity and ask people to sign up in advance?

Congregation B’nai Amoona has been holding limited capacity services indoors since October. The synagogue’s leadership required people to sign up in advance. First, they allowed 10 people, then 20, then 50, then 100, and now they are allowing 125.

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Even at that number, given the size of the synagogue’s sanctuary, “It still feels somewhat empty because we can spread out pretty easily,” Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham said.

Attendees must wear masks. Plexiglass will remain behind the podiums on the bimah until July 1. 

Abraham joined the Conservative synagogue last June in the midst of the pandemic. He visited the previous January before the virus had shut down much of the world, so he got a glimpse of “what a normal Shabbat in the community felt like,” he said.

“We are getting back closer to that,” said Abraham, who moved to St. Louis from a San Antonio synagogue. “As we have expanded the services beyond 100 people, a Shabbat morning feels more like it used to for me.”

The other local Conservative synagogue, Kol Rinah, also began holding in-person services in August with limited capacity and pre-registration required. 

Rabbi Noah Arnow of Kol Rinah

Rabbi Noah Arnow said it has been “really nice” to have notice of who is coming so that he can seek people out and say hello, but he is also interested to see what services would be like if the congregation were to require proof of vaccination and then gather indoors, in larger numbers, without masks, and serve food. 

The synagogue’s reopening task force planned to meet this week to discuss changes. 


“We are thinking also about how to celebrate b’nai mitzvah and other simchas with families who want to celebrate and have food, and also how to have a bigger crowd on the High Holidays,” he said. 

Rabbi Ze’ev Smason

That opportunity to eat food together is a vital part of congregational life, said Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of the Orthodox synagogue Nusach Hari B’nai Zion. 

“I have often said that I believe the kiddush and the lunch and the food that we serve at the end of service is as important as the actual service. Now I do tell people, that doesn’t mean you can just come for kiddush,” Smason joked. 

After the CDC changed its guidelines and the synagogue’s  medical advisory board met, the congregation, on Shavuot, when dairy food is traditionally eaten, served food for the first time during the pandemic. 

They offered cheesecake and grape juice.

“It was delirium,” Smason said. “Fourteen months where people couldn’t drink a drop of water, and now we had little cubes of cheesecake and it felt like a five-star meal.

“The opportunity to be able to interact and talk about how fascinating the rabbi’s sermon was (Smason and the reporter again laughing here), that’s what it’s all about. There is a lot to be happy about and a lot to smile about.”

At Shaare Emeth, people are also “smiling a lot when they see others without masks at the temple or around the Jewish community,” Bennett said. 

Still, Bennett believes that society is experiencing a “pandemic-induced agoraphobia,” which the Mayo Clinic defines as “a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed.”

Given that, he is calling for his congregants and others to be patient with one another. 

“We seem to have become accustomed to being separate, isolated and cautious, as has been appropriate through the pandemic so far,” Bennett said. “Now, the challenges include respecting the choices of others and remaining kind, compassionate and decent towards one another. 

“For example, while the CDC says that those who are fully vaccinated may safely go without a mask, we need to recognize that others may not feel safe yet doing so. So we ask people not to judge those who may choose to continue wearing masks.”

Amid the uncertainty over how people would react to restrictions, CRC leaders went back and forth on whether to require proof of vaccinations in order to attend services, Bogard said. The congregation ultimately decided to hold services on Friday nights, outdoors, with masks, and Saturday mornings, indoors, proof of vaccination required, masks and social distancing optional. 

“We have gotten no pushback and entirely just people who are incredibly supportive of the idea that we are checking vaccination status, because I think there are a lot of folks who understandably have a lot of anxiety and fear about reentering the world without masks,” Bogard said.

He likened the process of reentering the normal world to the Jewish tradition of sitting shivah for seven days, at home, after the death of a close relative, and of shloshim, the 30-day period in which mourners resume some social and professional interactions. 

“It’s part of our obligation to help people along this journey.”