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Chabad synagogue in Atlanta announces reopening, then changes its mind

Update 6:00 p.m.

A Chabad synagogue in Atlanta announced Wednesday that it would open its doors for daily prayer, but reversed course the following day, a few hours after the Forward published a story about the opening.

Chabad Israeli Center Atlanta – Congregation Beit Reuven, an Orthodox synagogue that caters to the city’s Israeli expat population, was the first known synagogue in the country to announce that it was reopening after social distancing restrictions were lifted.

The synagogue announced in an email to congregants on Wednesday, written in Hebrew and English, that minyanim will be offered three times a day starting Sunday, including Shabbat. That information was not visible on the synagogue’s website or its Facebook page.

But on Thursday afternoon, the director of the synagogue, Rabbi Mendy Gurary, sent a follow-up email stating that after receiving guidance from Rabbi Yossi New, the regional director of Chabad of Georgia, the synagogue would stay shut after all. (Gurary did not respond to a Forward request for comment before publication of the original article on Thursday.)

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced last week that churches and other houses of worship would be allowed to operate under certain conditions, but no synagogues in the state chose to avail themselves of that possibility until now.

“We originally made the decision based on the governor’s announcement of reopening public places such as malls, gyms and houses of worship,” Rabbi Gurary wrote Thursday. “Chabad in Georgia has decided to take extra precautionary measures.”

According to the Wednesday email, which was sent in Hebrew and English, worshippers were to have worn face masks and stay six feet away from each other at all times. The rabbi would take charge of all of the ceremonies that congregants normally volunteer for – opening and closing the ark, reading the Torah and parading it around the sanctuary. Anyone called up to the Torah for an aliyah would have to move six feet away from the scroll as soon as their prayer is completed.

A Forward investigation last week found that for the first time in American history, there were no synagogues legally open in the entire country – at that point, 45 states had ordered houses of worship to close to stop the spread of coronavirus, and every synagogue in the remaining five states had shut down in-person services voluntarily.

Rabbi Motti Seligson, the director of media relations for Chabad-Lubavitch, told the Forward last week that Chabad rabbis were consulting with experts about whether to open synagogues. “I know that in the states that have announced lifting the orders, there is caution in opening synagogues too soon,” he wrote by email. (Local Chabad synagogues operate largely independently of the international movement’s headquarters in Brooklyn).

Other Orthodox rabbis in the Atlanta area told JTA last week that they were staying closed regardless of the governor’s order. “It seems to be the overwhelming perspective that people are really disappointed and upset at this decision to reopen at this time,” said Rabbi Adam Starr of Congregation Ohr HaTorah, speaking about Kemp’s decision.

Aiden Pink is the deputy news editor of the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aidenpink

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