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How the ultra-Orthodox plan to reopen safely: No women, no children

The health guidelines issued by one of the country’s biggest Orthodox Jewish organizations proclaim that the first stage of opening synagogues safely will prevent women from attending.

Agudath Israel of America, which represents Haredi Jews (sometimes called ultra-Orthodox Jews), released their plan on Friday advising member synagogues on how to safely reopen their synagogues once their local governments allow them to do so. According to the Agudah, synagogues should only open for communal prayer once COVID-19 diagnoses go on a downward trend for 14 straight days.

The so-called “phase one” of reopening limits attendance to 12 or 14 people maximum depending on the room size, with everyone in attendance wearing masks and staying at least eight feet apart. “As attendance per minyan is severely restricted to minimize risk, attendees should be limited to those halachically required to daven,” the guidelines state, using the Yiddish word for prayer. “Thus, for example, children under bar mitzvah should not attend.”

In Orthodox halacha, or Jewish law, women are also not required to pray in a minyan.

The Agudah’s guide also includes descriptions of phases two and three, which will be possible if local health conditions continue to improve, but do not specify when people who are not halachically required to pray can attend synagogue.

An Agudah spokeswoman referred the Forward to an official who did not respond by publication time.

Other Orthodox groups have made different decisions.

The Orthodox Union, which represents centrist and Modern Orthodox communities, also issued a guide to opening up their synagogues on Friday. Like the Agudah, they discouraged people with preexisting health conditions from attending services, but unlike them, the OU guide did not mention women or children at all.

And an Atlanta synagogue affiliated with the Chabad Orthodox movement, which briefly announced that it was opening last month before reversing its decision the following day, had asked children to stay home but did not make any similar requests of female community members.

Last month, a Forward investigation found that there were no synagogues open anywhere in America – either because the communities were in states where communal gatherings were banned, or because synagogue leaders unilaterally decided to close for the sake of health and safety.

As governors in some states have moved to ease restrictions, rabbis of all denominations have said that synagogues will move more cautiously. On a conference call with Dr. Anthony Fauci on Thursday, the Orthodox Union said that its synagogues would wait a minimum of two weeks after their local governors’ re-opening announcements before deciding whether to open their doors.

Correction: A previous version of this article claimed that according to Orthodox halacha, women are not obligated to pray. In fact, most sources say that women are indeed obligated to pray, though they are not obligated to participate in a minyan.

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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