St. Louis synagogues have embraced the outdoors during pandemic


William Motchan

Central Reform Congregation. Photo: Bill Motchan

BILL MOTCHAN, Special to the Jewish Light

Outdoor living spaces can adapt well for leisure activities, dining, celebrations and even worship. Two decades ago, Congregation Shaare Emeth held summer services outdoors from June through August. They included a story and were shorter than the traditional indoor services. Members were encouraged to dress casually. The summer series was a popular tradition, but it fell victim to increasingly hotter and humid weather over time.

Since the pandemic began last year, Shaare Emeth has been streaming services online like many other congregations. This summer, they went back in time to outdoor services.

“We hadn’t had them in a while, and we weren’t sure how it would work,” said Rabbi Andrea Goldstein. “We started it at the beginning of June and at least for June and July out in our courtyard. It’s a toned-down liturgy with just one guitar to help the cantor instead of the piano we have indoors. It’s a simpler service.

“We’ve been able to be outside when there’s no rain or excessive heat, and the services have been really well received. People really like being outdoors in the courtyard. It’s shaded and people are able to sit closer together but still feel safe, and we’ve gotten nice feedback from people who have come.”


If it’s raining or excessively hot, the congregation moves indoors to the sanctuary, but it’s large enough to easily accommodate social distancing, since Shaare Emeth limits the number of members who attend. Indoors or out, the services are still streamed online. And this fall, while COVID variants make everything subject to change, the congregation plans to continue outdoor services for the High Holidays using a large tent.

Congregation Bais Abraham began outdoor services in 2020 after the pandemic lockdown. They continued well into the fall until it was too cold to continue. That’s when the congregation moved back indoors, but with face masks and social distancing. Prior to the new July 26 St. Louis County mask mandate, face masks were optional for indoor services for fully vaccinated congregation members.

No decision has been made yet about outdoor services at Bais Abe during the 2021 High Holidays, but the congregation has made safety of congregants a priority. The congregation’s volunteers have also helped find the best course of action, according to Larry Friedman, board president.

“I’ve been very heartened and gratified by all the volunteers who helped us put up our outdoor canopy and maintain it,” Friedman said. He also pointed out the significant role played by the congregations ad hoc medical advisory committee, a panel of medical experts who mobilized and provided clear direction just before the pandemic was officially declared last year.

At Central Reform Congregation, outdoor services were initially offered as an option for unvaccinated children.

“It was very well-received,” said Elana Hertel, CRC executive assistant. “We alternated from more traditional outdoor services to ‘tot shabbat,’ which was a shorter service and geared to kids. People loved coming and being able to connect and they appreciated the options we were giving them.

“We are planning on having a High Holiday component outside, and we’re going to have a huge tent on one side of our parking lot. We’ll also stream services from inside to outside and conduct some services in the tent. It will be up from Erev Rosh Hashanah to Sukkot and it’s going to be great. It’s a nice environment and we’re excited about it.”