United Synagogue rabbis will be allowed — for the first time since lockdown was imposed — to enter their synagogues to broadcast services, it was announced this week.
But there will be no general re-opening of shuls as a result of the government decision, made on Sunday, that places of worship can be re-opened for individuals to conduct private prayer.
Instead, all Jewish denominations are trying to find ways to comply with government regulations, and communal faith leaders are in close contact with Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, who made the announcement at the weekend. Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis spoke to Mr Jenrick last week and expects to do so again this week.
Rabbi Nicky Liss, chair of the US’s Rabbinical Council, made it clear to US rabbis that the government move was “an important first step”. He said: “It will bring comfort to many people of faith. According to Jewish tradition one can pray anywhere and at any time, but for formalised prayer services we require a minyan, such as for saying Kaddish and reading from the Torah.
“In light of the government guidance, United Synagogue rabbis will now be able to broadcast from their shul if they so wish. The rest of our guidance issued last week remains in place as we are not yet able to open our buildings more fully. We hope that we will be permitted to return to our shuls as soon as it is safe to do so”.
In a letter to rabbis, rebbetzins and chairs of US congregations, Rabbi Liss discussed the government directive, operative from June 15. He said the measure had particularly been sought by those of other faiths, “mostly notably the Catholic Church”.
But Jewish worship does not focus on personal prayer inside the synagogue. Those who wish to pray on an individual basis can do so — and have been doing so — at home, with the exception, among the Orthodox, of saying Kaddish. That, the Chief Rabbi has ruled, cannot be recited without a minyan of 10 men.
For the Reform and Liberal Movements, according to Reform’s Senior Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, shul re-openings are “very unlikely” at the moment. She said that both denominations had so successfully used on-line worship, “engaging thousands of people in a way which had not happened before”, that for the time being they were happy to continue on that track.
She said the on-line approach had allowed many people to participate in services, in a way which would not currently be possible while social distancing restrictions remain in place. Added to that was the government’s continued ban on singing in houses of worship “because singing extends the droplet [airborne infection] range from three to five metres”. In early March, for example, after attending a choir practice in America’s Washington State, dozens of people were diagnosed with or developed symptoms of COVID-19 even though they had not shaken hands or stood close to one another. At least two died.
“Our emphasis in Judaism is on praying with the community”, Rabbi Janner-Klausner said. “If that is not possible, the next best thing is to be able to pray at the same time as the community” —and for that a building was not required.
Both the Reform and Orthodox denominations are understood to be working out the mechanics of opening synagogues, with concern for the welfare of the janitorial staff,.and the development of appropriate signage and the railing off of seats in order to ensure social distancing.
Some Reform and Liberal rabbis have already been using their synagogues to lead on-line services, but they are alone in the buildings where that takes place.
Rabbi Janner-Klausner said her movement was now looking into providing ways of linking people into services for the High Holy Days, particularly older people who had no digital access.
Joel Friedman, director of public affairs at the strictly Orthodox charity, the Interlink Foundation, welcomed the government relaxation. He said: “Places of worship play an essential and deep role in the lives of people in our communities. People have willingly made huge sacrifices to stay at home and control the virus while it was essential to do so. But it is a hardship and sorrow for people to be deprived of worship in their synagogue while many other aspects of non-essential life are reopening. We are yearning to pray together again in our sacred spaces, in a safe way. Allowing places of worship to open for individual prayer is a step in the right direction”.
New government guidance due to be published this week will recommend “the thorough cleaning of shared spaces, hand cleansing at entry and exit and asking worshippers to bring their own items such as a prayer mat or religious text instead of sharing or using communal ones”.
The Faith Minister, Lord Greenhalgh, said: “Religious communities have shown enormous resilience and sacrifice in celebrating significant spiritual moments like Easter, Passover, Ramadan, Eid and Vaisakhi at home during these extraordinary times.
“The government has determined that this is the right time to begin re-opening places of worship for individual prayer.
“It’s our hope that this is the first step in places of worship reopening fully, when the science supports it. I look forward to continuing to discuss with the Taskforce how to address ongoing practical safety issues in the coming weeks”.