St. Louis Orthodox congregations praying again in person; Reform and Conservative synagogues remain virtual

Beverly Chervitz leads Thursday morning services in the chapel at Congregation B’nai Amoona for those praying at home. 

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

In early June, members of Agudas Israel of St. Louis gathered together for the first time in months under two tents in the Orthodox synagogue’s parking lot for a weekday service.

They then proceeded to have outdoors services in the mornings and evenings each weekday and on Shabbat.

“The first couple times, it was very emotional to be together,” said Michael Kass, an attorney who has belonged to the congregation for two decades. “There is this concept that the tefillos [prayers] of a Jew have a far better chance of reaching God through a minyan,” a quorum of 10 men, according to the Orthodox practice, “because you have the power of being in a community, so it’s a difficult thing to not have that regularly.”

Almost five months after St. Louis city and county, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, issued mandatory stay-at-home restrictions — which have since been lifted — many local Jews are still waiting to reunite.

While all the local Orthodox congregations have again started to hold in-person services, the local Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations continue to only do virtual services.

Leaders of the various congregations all say that they are adhering to guidelines from public health officials and that their members are taking the threat of the virus seriously. That then begs the question: Are the different approaches to services due to varying degrees of concerns about the virus or differing levels of religious observance or for some other reason?

Trying to hold in-person services safely

When members of Agudas Israel turned out the lights and locked the doors at their building on Delmar Boulevard in University City in March, it “actually resulted in shedding a few tears. It was a very sad moment for us,” said Rabbi Menachem Greenblatt.

Like many institutions, Agudas Israel and other Orthodox congregations turned to the Zoom digital conferencing platform and other technology in order to maintain a Jewish communal connection. Members of Agudas Israel participated in a phone conference at 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday with Greenblatt.

“We began by greeting one another — whoever called in — and I expressed an inspirational thought and then we recited some prayers together, and I made a prayer for those who are ill or struggling,” said Greenblatt.

In May, Bais Abraham Congregation held a virtual Lag B’Omer celebration, and each week, Nusach Hari B’nai Zion held a virtual Kabbalat Shabbat service before sundown.

But because of their adherence to Jewish law concerning the use of technology, the congregations did not hold virtual services on Shabbat. And because of the lack of a minyan, the Orthodox congregations did not say the Mourner’s Kaddish or read from the Torah virtually.

“The hub of the synagogue now in many ways is virtual, with our multiplicity of classes and special programs and our outreach to members. But a synagogue without tefillah, without prayer, is like a three-legged stool with one of the legs that is broken; it just isn’t going to work real well,” said Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari.

Once the local governments started to loosen restrictions on social gatherings in May, the leaders of the Orthodox synagogues conferred with doctors within their congregations and people in Orthodox synagogues in other parts of the country to develop a plan for safely gathering.

“We are very fortunate that we have some physicians within our community and within our synagogue who are very, very involved in understanding COVID and following the trends, so yes, it’s very challenging for a rabbi. I feel a deep responsibility of making sure that everything we do is done with safety uppermost in mind,” said Greenblatt.

In addition to wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart, the congregations also have used signup sheets to limit the number of people who come to services; installed markers on the ground; and instructed members to bring their own prayer books, among other safety measures.

The congregations have also tried to abbreviate services by not having rabbis deliver a sermon and only having one person, rather than multiple people, read from the Torah. They also tried to reduce the risk of spreading the virus by not allowing communal singing.

Young Israel of St. Louis also upgraded its HVAC system to improve circulation and then returned to services in May. The congregation has a capacity of about 500 people in its sanctuary, which is divided between men and women; these days, 30 to 40 men and 10 to 15 women attend Shabbat morning services. Rabbi Moshe Shulman used to hand out lollipops to children on the bimah; now children and parents come by his house on Saturday afternoons for the candy.

“It’s very surreal,” said Shulman. “I mean, we all obviously miss the full flavor of service. The fact that we are not singing and that I am not speaking is hard for me and hard for others.”

Before U. City Shul started holding services outside and then indoors, Rabbi Menachem Tendler was concerned how people would react to the new restrictions, he said.

I wondered if “I was going to be really busy walking over to people, insisting that they are wearing their masks properly or wearing it at all or staying in one spot, and I can’t recall one instance that I have had anybody give any sort of hesitation to following the protocols,” said Tendler. “To me, as the leader of a congregation and having to keep everything in mind, I continue to be very grateful and very happy that this is a culture that has been accepted.”

Being together virtually and spiritually

While clergy and members of Reform and Conservative congregations say they wish they could physically be together, they also point to unexpected positives that have come from the virtual format.

For example, some rabbis say more people are participating in classes than when they met in person. And people from all over the world and locally, whose schedules or disabilities made it difficult for them to make it to services even before the pandemic, are now able to pray virtually.

When Congregation B’nai Amoona moved to holding weekday services on Zoom, a rabbi or cantor would lead from the Conservative synagogue’s chapel while members participated remotely. Then, congregants started to lead services, which include the Mourner’s Kaddish, alone in the chapel for people at home.

On Thursday mornings, Beverly Chervitz walks into a dark chapel, turns on the light switch, walks to the pulpit and gets ready to daven.

“I feel that even though I am the only one there, my people are all there because they would be there before all this happened and that feeling just comes with me now,” said Chervitz, who worked for Jewish nonprofits before she retired. “I always say to my streaming people, ‘We may not be together physically, but we certainly are together spiritually.’ ”

Still, Chervitz said the topic of gathering together in person “comes up all the time.”

“People want to know, ‘If there are 200 seats, why can’t we open it up to 10 to 15 people? We would all come in and have masks on,’ ” said Chervitz, who organizes the minyans. “I think [the B’nai Amoona leaders] just have to be very, very cautious…People are anxious to get back together, but in a way, I am glad they are being extra cautious.”

Some Conservative congregations, like those along the East Coast are meeting outside on beaches or experimenting with services indoors; others continue to do so only online, according to Jennifer Stofman, director of synagogue consulting for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, an umbrella body for Conservative synagogues.

“What many congregations are doing is surveying their congregation to find out if people would indeed attend [services] if they offered them. What they are learning in my district, [New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware], is that congregations two to one are saying they would not attend even if they were offered, that they feel safer with the virtual option,” said Stofman, who lives in southern New Jersey.

Rabbi Noah Arnow of Kol Rinah, another local Conservative synagogue, said members have not begun to gather again for in-person services because renovation of their new building in Clayton is not yet complete and they are “still not 100 percent sure that we have ways of doing that where everyone feels comfortable and safe.”

“I miss seeing people, and I think we had a wider range of people coming in person — especially on Shabbat — where we would get 100-plus people just about every Shabbat morning,” said Arnow. “We are just not getting that [virtually], and I think we all miss seeing and being with each other in person.”

Leaders of Congregation Shaare Emeth, a Reform synagogue, have already decided that they will not hold in-person services for the rest of the year. Congregation Temple Israel has also decided to make its High Holiday services strictly virtual.

Nationally, the vast majority of Reform congregations are still streaming services and only about 10 to 15% will have High Holiday services with people in person, according to the Union for Reform Judaism, an umbrella group for the movement.

But Shaare Emeth did recently start allowing families with 10 people or less to use the sanctuary for lifecycle events like a baby naming or conversion ceremony.

They have also been holding virtual events, like a Zoom gathering at the start of the pandemic to honor healthcare professionals.

“We have always had very good attendance at our in-person worship gatherings, but we have been able to reach a broader population because of the virtual platform,” said Rabbi James Bennett. “We also have people joining us who have admitted that this year has brought out their longing for a spiritual community and sustenance in a way that they never realized before.”

Many of the local rabbis said that even once the threat of the coronavirus has subsided, they plan to continue to use virtual platforms at their congregations.

“I am very much a people person, so I like dealing with people face-to-face, and it really brought out a side of connecting online, connecting over the phone, giving classes in a different setting,” said Tendler of U. City Shul. “Hopefully, we will be able to keep that up and it will help us be a more robust shul.”

As to the differences among congregations gathering physically or virtually, Bennett said, “I would never pass judgment on anyone else’s thoughtful, science-based, medical-based decisions. I think everybody is trying to do what they believe is best.”