At least half-a-dozen United Synagogue communities to reopen for Purim

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At least half-a-dozen United Synagogue communities to reopen for Purim

At indoor Megillah readings there should be 'no shouting or blowing of instruments at Haman’s name', while children under 11 are not allowed to attend

Jack Mendel is the Online Editor at the Jewish News.

Orthodox Jewish children dressed as clowns celebrate the festival of Purim in Stamford Hill in north London.
Orthodox Jewish children dressed as clowns celebrate the festival of Purim in Stamford Hill in north London.

At least half a dozen United Synagogue communities will re-open for Purim, as shuls are given strict guidance on celebrating the festival safely.

At indoor communal meghilla readings there should be “no shouting or blowing of instruments at Haman’s name”, with children under-11 not allowed to attend.

This comes after the London Beth Din was asked by the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue to make a ruling on marking the festival amid the pandemic.

In a summary of the guidance issued this week, congregants are told: “If you can hear a reading in shul or from somebody else whilst complying with government and US Covid regulations, or if you can read it yourself from a kosher scroll, then you should do so. If owing to Covid restrictions it is not possible, then you should listen to one of the live recitals we are broadcasting, rather than a recording.”

Under existing rules for the third national lockdown, places of worship are able to open provided they follow strict coronavirus rules, such as social distancing.

The United Synagogue said six communities are planning to re-open for Purim, bringing the total number of functioning shuls to 15 – with more expected to be announced in the coming week.

Dayan Menachem Gelley, head of the London Beth Din, said: “Given that Covid poses a grave threat to our health and is putting immense strain on the NHS, it goes without saying that all government health directives should be strictly adhered to” when hearing the megillah.

For communities which are open or are intending to for the festival, guidance states that celebrations must not be “a Purim event or party”, with no food or drink allowed. It warns about “disproportionate risk” facing older people,  saying “those aged over 70 should be asked not to attend” while over 50s should “be reminded” about the dangers. Children under 11 must not go to shul.

The megillah “should be read at pace and not be drawn out”, the US adds, saying there should be no “shouting or blowing of instruments at Haman’s name”.

For shuls which are currently closed but planning to open just for Purim, they are warned that doing so “after a period of closure brings with it increased risk” as members will be out of routine, and will want to socialise. As a result, Covid protocols must be made clear for all members beforehand, and numbers are strictly capped,  so they “should not exceed 50 in one space”, with smaller communities asked to have lower capacity.

For outdoor megillah readings on shul grounds, there must be an open-sided marquee and all congregants must be seated, while the idea of a ‘drive-in megillah’ is also put forward as a safer options, but requiring permission from local authorities.  Lastly, its guidance outlines it is “not permitted” to hold readings for “multiple people in public spaces or on streets”, such as in parks.

Jo Grose, United Synagogue’s Communities Director, said:  “Although during this lockdown Places of Worship have been permitted by government to remain open, most of our communities have chosen to pause services temporarily.  On the basis of falling infection and hospitalisation rates and thanks to the ongoing advice we receive from public health bodies, some communities are planning to reopen to allow members to hear the megillah in person in a Covid-secure setting.  We are excited to be reviewing their plans which include drive-ins and outdoor readings.”

“We continue to support those shuls that remain closed and are pleased that both they and the United Synagogue centrally will be running a wide range of programmes and live megillah readings online so that we can all find a way to celebrate safely this Purim.”

Michael Goldstein, President of the United Synagogue, said: ” I’d like to commend the Dayanim of the London Beth Din for working thoughtfully and sensitively with the leadership of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue to issue Purim guidance for our communities which enables our members to fulfil the halachic requirements of the festival in a safe but meaningful way.”

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