Re-opening Synagogues with Caution

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By Lianne Kolirin

Britain’s synagogues will remain closed well beyond government guidance to reopen, following a message of “extreme caution” from the Chief Rabbi.

If returning to normal too soon, synagogues – or shuls, as often referred to – could become “a hub for the virus to reappear”, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has warned.

The Jewish community appears to have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. In late March, more than 5 per cent of the victims were of the Jewish faith – while only 0.5 per cent of the wider population is Jewish. Though significantly lower now at just below 1.5 per cent, the death rate issue remains a major concern.

In recognition that faith communities in this country do not all behave or worship in the same way, Rabbi Mirvis said: “The Jewish community may need, in some respects, to hold back for a time, even if guidance would permit going further – indeed we may have a religious obligation to do so.”

This week, Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for housing, communities and local government, announced that the Government is working on plans to reopen places of worship. Speaking at Wednesday evening’s press conference, he said: “I have been speaking to faith leaders, and this week will convene a task force to establish when and how places of worship can open safely.”

Though some may welcome the move, Rabbi Mirvis urged his community to expect a protracted return to normality. Writing in The Jewish Chronicle today (Thursday), he argued that the sanctity of human life must be the overriding guiding principle.

“We have always taken pride in our shuls being a veritable home away from home; the heartbeat of our closely-knit, vibrant communities. But in the fight against Covid 19 our greatest strength as a community has become our greatest weakness,” he said.

Even if closures are lifted, he said religious communities must apply the government’s advice in a suitable manner at their own pace, so that it is safe:

“While we desperately want to rush back to our shuls and communal buildings, that deep desire must be tempered by the knowledge that our settings could quickly become a hub for the virus to reappear.  We must proceed with extreme caution, taking account of a whole range of factors, including the intensely social atmosphere in and around our communities, age profile and availability of space, as well as the evolving national picture.”

Some attribute the initial impact on the community to the festival Purim, which fell on March 9 and 10. The festival is traditionally observed by donning fancy dress and partying, with many people getting together in large numbers – both in synagogue and beyond.

“I could never have imagined that shul attendance would put lives in danger,” wrote Rabbi Mirvis. “Yet it now appears likely that some of the victims of Covid-19 may have become infected with the virus at Purim services and parties in our synagogues, some two weeks before the government declared a lockdown.”

He added: “Unknown to us, Purim services this year inadvertently created a health hazard with tragic consequences.”

As of 11 May, there have been 440 Jewish funerals where the deceased had contracted Covid-19. This figure is regularly updated by the Board of Deputies of British Jews who collate the information from a network of burial societies. In reality, the number is likely to be higher as not all of those affected would have had Jewish funerals officially recorded by the authorities.

It is not just worship, but the many other educational and social activities that take place within synagogues that are problematic, Rabbi Mirvis said. “Tragically, everything we know and love about shul facilitates the spread of Covid-19.”

He praised the community’s response as “inspirational”, having moved worship, celebrations, learning programmes and social events to a virtual space.

Preparing to “meticulously consider” what a return to synagogues will look like, he added: “Many people are anxious to ‘get back to normal’, but this will be a phased process of many months. We will not be able to open our synagogues fully for a long time.”

This, he said, could stretch up to and including Yom Kippur, which falls at the end of September this year. Considered the most holy day in the Jewish calendar, it always draws huge crowds to synagogues worldwide. “This time, we cannot allow our holiest day of the year, or any other, to be a day like Purim,” he concluded.

While the Chief Rabbi does not oversee all British synagogues, the notion has cross communal support.

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, senior rabbi to Reform Judaism, has admitted that reopening in time for the autumn high holy days may not be possible.  She told the Religion Media Centre: “We are committed to pikuach nefesh, prioritising the physical safety of our members at this time. We are therefore extremely cautious regarding the reopening of synagogue buildings and will not recommend doing so until the evidence is clear that it will be safe to do so. We are in close contact with all our rabbis and cantors and communities and discussing all options, including the possibility that our synagogues may not be able to open their doors for the High Holy Days in September.”

One of those synagogues under the Reform umbrella is Maidenhead, led by Rabbi Jonathan Romain.

He told the Religion Media Centre: “There is no doubt that synagogue life will not be “back to normal” at all in 2020, and possibly beyond. Social distancing rules will mean either synagogues have to severely limit attendance – we worked out, for instance, that our seating capacity will reduce from 147 to 24 – or simply not open at all as it will be too restrictive to allow meaningful assembly.

“In addition, singing is allowed only if chairs are even further apart than two metres, it will makes attendance either impossible or lacking any atmosphere. Those communities, like mine in Maidenhead, may well prefer to keep services going through live-streaming or Zoom, which have been working surprisingly well and with high attendances.”

Chief Rabbi’s office

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

Rabbi Jonathan Romain