Synagogues in L.A. can reopen, but many rabbis are holding off
When Young Israel of Century City reopens, it will hold satellite services in backyards following social distancing protocols. Fewer people will be in close contact with the Torah. There will be limited singing and no sermons.
Even though the synagogue, which has about 500 families, now has permission from the city and county of Los Angeles to reopen in a limited fashion, its rabbi has firmly decided to hold off. Rabbi Elazar Muskin is among a group of local Orthodox rabbis who have signed a letter stating they will wait at least two weeks to see whether coronavirus cases surge.
“This is a question of halacha [Jewish law] and to make sure that you don’t, God forbid, put anybody into danger,” he said. “Synagogue life — something in the Orthodox community which is so social — can be very contagious. It can be a means of spreading the virus. We want to make sure that would not occur.”
Following announcements by officials Tuesday to allow the resumption of faith-based services, rabbis have been grappling with the right thing to do. Some are inviting their congregants back in time for Shavuot, a holiday that begins Thursday night, while others will wait longer. For many, reopening means starting off with significant changes, including backyard services, no singing, and no food or socializing after prayers.
California’s move to roll back coronavirus-related restrictions on houses of worship came amid growing local pressure on Gov. Gavin Newsom to address the reopening of churches. But in the state and across the country, infections have been linked to such gatherings. In early March, an outbreak after a choir practice at a church in Washington state led to more than 40 people diagnosed with the virus or ill with its symptoms, as well as several deaths, despite the fact that participants brought their own music and avoided direct physical contact.
Under new state guidelines, houses of worship must limit total attendance to 25% of a building’s capacity or a maximum of 100 people, whichever is lower. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles has released guidelines to reopen churches for private prayer and public Mass as early as next week. Parishes must receive their regional bishop’s approval for reopening after meeting safety criteria to prevent crowding and physical contact as much as possible.
On May 14, 18 local Orthodox rabbis signed a letter stating that under guidelines published by Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, they would reconsider reopening their synagogues at least two weeks after the local government has allowed public gatherings of more than 10 people, and has not seen an uptick in cases. They will also not permit communal prayer services or learning groups outside of immediate family over the Shavuot holiday.
“Our commitment to the well-being of our community, in particular the elderly and the immune-compromised, demands nothing less,” the letter said.
Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, a non-denominational congregation in Mid-Wilshire, is waiting on indicators such as whether cases spike in the weeks after Memorial Day weekend. The community, which has more than 800 families, aims to eventually bring people together in outdoor spaces with congregants sitting in household clusters. Services may be broadcast online to include those who may not attend because they are at high risk of getting severely sick.
Over the last several months, IKAR has held services over Zoom every morning, including on Shabbat, with people from around the world attending.
“It does not approximate the real-life experience, and we miss that very much, but the risk is too high,” Brous said.
Temple Beth Am, a conservative synagogue on the Westside with more than 900 families, will also take a few weeks to determine safety protocols, including whether it will allow singing. It may first hold daily prayer services, which receive up to several dozen people, prior to restarting Shabbat services typically attended by hundreds, senior Rabbi Adam Kligfeld said.
The synagogue plans to also focus on bar and bat mitzvahs, which might be attended by a small number of people with the rest of guests watching over Zoom.
“There’s this notion to go beyond the letter and honor the spirit of the law,” Kligfeld said. “We don’t want to try to impress anyone, least of all ourselves, with piety, saying we’re going to be the first ones open… Even if that means other synagogues are going to open before us, we want to open in such a way where we don’t have to close if we didn’t do it smartly enough.”
Others have decided to move forward. Rabbi Avraham Hirschman of Pico Bais Medrash, an Orthodox congregation in Pico-Robertson, emailed his congregants shortly after officials permitted houses of worship to reopen this week. They would open just in time for holiday services on Thursday night, he said.
Attendance will be limited to men, who under an Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law are obligated to participate in communal prayer, with the hopes of soon expanding to women. Congregants must wear masks and bring their own prayer shawls and books. Only one person will handle the Torah.
Hirschman held it’s necessary to find a balance between the health risk and the obligation of communal prayer.
“The government felt that things are safe to reopen, and on the other side we have a law, a commitment towards God to do this,” said Hirschman, whose congregation consists of about 100 members. “I just feel like now is the right time to go ahead and do it.”
Rabbi Yitzchok Summers of Anshe Emes in Pico-Robertson is also taking the next step.
When Anshe Emes — an Orthodox synagogue with up to 100 families — reopens Thursday night, members will be instructed not to kiss the mezuzahs, tiny scrolls of Hebrew in a protective case, on the building’s doors. During the services that follow, sections like introductory psalms will be removed to shorten prayer time. There will be no singing and the rabbi won’t give his sermon, which he joked some people might be happy about.
The synagogue will not host the all-night learning that’s typical of the Shavuot holiday, which celebrates God’s revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. While congregants could study in pairs, Summers worried about accommodating them with enough room for social distancing.
“Transitions are always hard, and I hope it goes well,” he said. “Of course, I’m concerned, but at a certain point you have to jump.”
But some community members aren’t sure if they’re ready to attend services just yet, and while decisions over reopening continue, rabbis have been fielding calls from hesitant congregants. Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik, the director of the Jewish Learning Exchange in Hancock Park, an educational institution that hosts up to 50 people for Shabbat and holiday services, received a text from a man asking for advice because his wife didn’t want him to attend services for another few weeks.
“I texted him back: ‘Listen to your wife. Don’t go,’” Czapnik said. “She has to feel comfortable, and they have to work as a team.”
Czapnik, who is Orthodox, decided not to reopen this week but hopes to have services next Shabbat, pointing out he needed more time to coordinate things like seating cards and sanitizer for the bathroom.
“There’s no right or wrong, and we tell our congregants. If you don’t feel comfortable, you don’t have to come,” he said. “I see both sides of the coin very clearly. On one hand, we don’t want everyone to be infected. On the other hand, the world outside is going crazy — look at the beaches, look at everything. It’s a delicate balance.”
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