United Synagogue ‘amazed’ at speed of shuls adapting to new Covid-19 rules
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United Synagogue ‘amazed’ at speed of shuls adapting to new Covid-19 rules

'Because of the challenges of keeping everyone socially-distanced and the demand for places, communities have had to quickly adapt their plans', said one shul official

Anti-virus screens around the bimah at South Hampstead synagogue
Anti-virus screens around the bimah at South Hampstead synagogue

The United Synagogue has said it is “amazed” at how quickly synagogues have adapted to government guidance on what Jews can and can’t do during this month’s High Holy Days.

If follows the issuance of detailed rules on Monday to ensure that Jewish gatherings over the festive season – including for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot – limit the spread of coronavirus, after consultation with Public Health England.

There were fears that rising infection rates and the Government’s new ‘rule of six’ would mean the effective cancellation of this year’s High Holy Days, but the guidance confirmed that services can take place in synagogues.

“Because of the challenges of keeping everyone socially-distanced and the demand for places, communities have had to quickly adapt their plans, running additional minyanim and recruiting extra ba’alei tefillah (prayer/service leaders),” said Jo Grose, director of communities at the United Synagogue (US).

“It is of course disappointing that some of our communities have had to relocate their planned programming and services in gardens but we have been amazed at the speed at which they have found new locations and reorganised their plans after months of careful preparation.”

Shuls are supporting members through honey cake drop-offs, food parcels, arts and crafts programmes for children and even a bus for the rabbinic team to drive by and greet people, she said, with communities supporting those who are self-isolating through phone calls, packages and medicine drop-offs.

Grose said the US had “extremely positive engagement” with public health officials. “They listened to and heard the challenges and concerns of the Jewish community and we thank them for their time,” she said.

“The government’s new ‘Rule of 6’ means that many Jewish families won’t be able to enjoy a large festival meal together as they would do in usual years. We know this is very disappointing but also know our community recognises the urgent public health need to do what we can to bring the disease under control.”

Synagogues are being told to ensure social distancing and avoid communal prayer shawls and books, while those blowing the shofar for Rosh Hashanah must keep two metres from other worshippers and blow it away from people, to minimise the chance of spreading the virus through droplets.

Mask-wearing worshippers, who must pre-book to attend, are being told to bring their own prayer books, while in shul microphones are being used where possible, and where the synagogue’s leaders deem the use of electronic equipment acceptable.

The guidance acknowledges that the ‘Rule of Six’ – limiting social gatherings to six people from a maximum of two households – will have a particular impact on Sukkot, the festival’s focus being one of hospitality.

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