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For the first time, there are literally no synagogues legally open in America

Updated April 28

When the coronavirus starts to recede, Jewish life across the United States will look a lot like it already does in Fargo.

Only 150 Jews live in the biggest city in North Dakota, but it’s one of the few places in the country where the governor hasn’t ordered people to stay home, or put attendance caps on houses of worship.

This means that the state’s three synagogues have the legal right to openly hold Shabbat services. But they’re all choosing to stay shut anyway — making the city, most famous as the namesake of a beloved Coen brothers movie, a kind of leading indicator for when American Jews can go back to synagogue.

“In the Jewish tradition, sanctity of life takes precedence over anything else,” said Rabbi Yonah Grossman, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Center of North Dakota. “If there’s room to be cautious… it’s important for us to take that step in our own community.”

Literally 99% of American Jews live in states that have forbidden leaving the house to go pray at synagogues, forcing the holy spaces to close. This has been painful for untold numbers of worshippers. But the experience of the remaining 1% shows that even when the rules eventually loosen, Jewish institutions will likely be slow to reopen their doors.

There are five states – Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas, and North and South Dakota – that have declined to implement stay-at-home measures. Based in part on data shared by the major American Jewish denominations, the Forward was able to identify 30 synagogues in those states.

All 30 of them have chosen to shut down as if there actually was a government order mandating it, according to either their websites or interviews with communal leaders. This means that there are no synagogues legally operating anywhere in the United States.

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said that this is almost surely the first time that that’s ever happened.

Outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera in the 17th through 19th centuries, which often caused Jews of means to flee their homes, only affected some cities but not others; even during the 1918 flu pandemic, some synagogues in some cities closed, but “it was not well understood that the best way to treat a pandemic was to be at home,” he explained.

Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, for example, has stayed continuously open since the American Revolution – until now.

“It was a point of pride, especially among older synagogues, that they maintained a minyan, and nothing closed them down,” he said. “There are synagogues that had great pride that amidst a blizzard, 10 people who lived near the synagogue gathered to maintain the minyan. So it does represent a tremendous change in thinking, that the proper thing to do is to actually shelter at home and shutter a synagogue.”

Why shuls don’t open, even when they can

The combined Jewish population of those five states is 17,500, fewer than the number of Jews in Sacramento alone, according to the 2019 American Jewish Year Book, an annual academic study. In small towns where services are only held monthly, and even some of the bigger cities like Omaha and Little Rock where Jews still make up a tiny minority, synagogues are some of the only places where local Jews can find fellowship. But rabbis and lay leaders are choosing to prioritize communal health over communal connection.

Besides, said Sophie Homanoff, the director of education at the Des Moines Jewish Federation, most Iowans are following stay-at-home guidelines despite not being required to.

Closing the synagogues “was absolutely a community decision to keep everyone safe, following the scientists’ thinking and recommendations,” she added. While there were a few congregants in the city’s two egalitarian synagogues who wanted the doors to stay open, “it was overruled by the boards.”

According to Lubavitch of Iowa director Rabbi Yossi Jacobson, Orthodox synagogues throughout the state are closed too, including in Postville, home to the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse. “No one’s playing around,” he said.

Even in the smallest of towns, houses of worship are taking precautions. In Jefferson County, Iowa (population 18,000), there have only been seven COVID-19 diagnoses. But Congregation Beth Shalom is taking no chances, hosting Shabbat services on Zoom.

“Sure has alleviated any concerns we had about synagogue security,” shul president Marc Berkowitz wrote by email. “Every cloud has a silver lining, you know.”

Still, such decisions can be difficult and even heart-wrenching. Because of the lack of a minyan, Jacobson hasn’t been able to say Kaddish for his brother, who died from coronavirus just before Passover – the same day he was packing and shipping hundreds of Seder packages, many intended for people who had never had to host their own Seders before. On that day, Jacobson said, he felt that his “mission from heaven is, you’re needed to supply the Passover Seder plate.”

Will synagogues open when states do?

The stringencies are unlikely to be relaxed. The Orthodox Union, the Union for Reform Judaism and Chabad-Lubavitch all told the Forward that decisions to reopen synagogues would be based on health considerations, not changes in state policy. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism told the Forward after this article was originally published that its synagogues will consider reopening “based on health considerations and state government directives.”

A group of 11 Orthodox rabbis in Dallas wrote a joint statement explaining that even if their governor allowed houses of worship to open as “essential services,” they would still stay shut. “We agree that shuls are essential,” they wrote, “but the value of pikuach nefesh” – preserving life – “is even more essential.”

Once health experts agree that synagogues can operate safely, the urge to return will be strong for many. Indeed, there have been isolated reports from New York and New Jersey of secret illegal services in violation of state law.

“At times of danger and hardship, normally Jews come to synagogue,” Sarna said. “And even during the cholera epidemic, when Rabbi Yisroel Salanter” – a legendary 19th century Lithuanian rabbi – “is supposed to have gotten up on Yom Kippur and eaten and told other people to eat, remember, he did that in a synagogue.

But others will probably be hesitant for a while. Jacobson said that his grandson was born last month – just before his brother died. “The same source that is returning life to Him is returning life to us,” he said.

On the baby’s eighth day, the Jacobsons had a bris. Normally such ceremonies are occasions for large gatherings, but the Jacobsons decided that the only non-family member there would be the mohel. This was done for health reasons, the rabbi said. But then again, he admitted, “No one wanted to be invited.”

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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