Sadiq Khan urges synagogue closures amid surging cases in London
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Sadiq Khan urges synagogue closures amid surging cases in London

Mayor says places of worship, which are allowed to remain open, should 'look beyond what is technically permitted'

Jack Mendel is the Online Editor at the Jewish News.

Mill Hill United synagogue under Covid restrictions, including social distancing and masks (Credit: Marc Morris)
Mill Hill United synagogue under Covid restrictions, including social distancing and masks (Credit: Marc Morris)

Sadiq Khan has urged Jewish communities to shut synagogues and “look beyond what is technically permitted” to help save lives.

The Mayor of London declared a ‘major incident’ in the capital last week amid surging cases of the virus, and called on the government to reverse its decision to allow places of worship to remain open during the third national lockdown.

This comes after more than 1,500 deaths were reported on Wednesday, the highest figure of the pandemic, with London passing the grim milestone of 10,000 fatalities.

As of Wednesday, 11 United Synagogue congregations out of a total of 56 have kept their doors open.

Other movements, including Reform and Liberal Judaism have closed all synagogues and moved services entirely online.

Writing to chairs, rabbis and rebetzens of its shuls this week, the United Synagogue said it has “permitted communities to determine whether they wish to close or remain open” and has “supported local leadership teams in making the right decision for their membership and local context.”

“Many communities have made the decision to close and will review this decision at regular intervals. As of today, 20% of our synagogues remain open.”

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan praised London’s faith communities, who have “from the earliest stages of the pandemic, provided practical help and comfort” to those in need.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan speaking during the annual Menorah Lighting Ceremony on Trafalgar Square in London to mark Chanukah – 2019. (Photo credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire)

He told Jewish News however, “with the levels of the virus circulating in our communities as high as it is, I no longer think allowing in-person gatherings is in the best interest of Londoners’ safety.

“That is why I am calling on the Government to close places of worship immediately, save for funeral services.

“Until that happens, I am urging all of London’s faith communities to look beyond what is technically permitted and focus on the safest course of action for all Londoners – this now means avoiding all communal worship for the time being to help reduce the risk of infections spreading.”

The United Synagogue urged its communities “as an additional precautionary measure, please consider cutting your total capacity even further”, saying “even in our largest cathedral-style shuls – aiming to have no more than 50 people in attendance in one room at any one time and far fewer in smaller rooms.”

Anti-virus screens around the bimah at South Hampstead synagogue

In all services, congregants and service leaders are being told to wear face coverings, while events such as weddings, barmitzvahs and batmitzvahs only able to take place if incorporated into an existing limited service.

Communities remaining open include Hendon, Birmingham, Edgware, Finchley, Golders Green, Hampstead Garden Suburb, Highgate, Kingsbury, Radlett, Sheffield and South Tottenham.

Rabbi Moshe Freedman of New West End Synagogue said last week it was with “deep regret” the shul was closing due to “the increasing risks of catching and transmitting #coronavirus”.

He thanked the government for allowing places of worship to stay open, saying it is “absolutely the case” they are essential, “but despite this, we felt that at this stage, the risks outweigh the benefits.”

He added: “I fully support communities that have remained open”.

Steven Wilson, United Synagogue’s chief executive, said: “As things stand, it is legal for shuls to be open for services, with full social distancing in place. Government data show the risk of transmission in places of worship is extremely low. As an additional precautionary measure, we have required our 11 shuls which remain open to reduce their capacities and on average services have about 15-20 people present.

“This allows mourners to say kaddish and families to celebrate a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in a very limited way. The situation is changing daily, and we continue to monitor it”

He added, that “it is not impossible that all shuls will need to close again, and we will continue to act responsibly to support our members as we have done for the past year.”

Last week, the chair of London Councils, Georgia Gould, said officials from boroughs across the capital “are reluctantly speaking to faith leaders to ask that they consider voluntarily closing communal worship spaces.”

However, Barnet Council, which is home to key Jewish communities including Edgware, Mill Hill, Hendon, Finchley and Golders Green, wrote to all places of worship, reassuring them of support for them staying open.

“At this stage, we will not be asking local POW to close however we would strongly encourage that all sites ensure that COVID-19 secure assessments are in place”.

“To support safe prayers, we are offering Lateral Flow Device tests (rapid tests for asymptomatic residents) to all places of worship, on a voluntary and pilot basis.”

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