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Despite governor’s green light, California synagogues will mostly stay closed

Despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s green light for houses of worship to reopen, the vast majority of California synagogues decided not to have in-person services on Friday for the Shavuot holiday, according to rabbis from around the state and across denominations.

A handful of smaller Orthodox synagogues either have opened or will do so this weekend. Otherwise, the majority seem to be passing on the invitation to hold holiday services in person this week, citing due caution in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The response from Jewish institutions around the state revealed divergent rabbinic approaches to halachic observance during a life-threatening pandemic. Shuls that planned to reopen immediately upon receiving permission will largely do so; ones that planned on waiting an extra two weeks are sticking to that plan. Others have been in no rush at all, and will continue to hold virtual services until all congregants can attend in person.

“We are being guided by the mezuzah, not expedience,” said Rabbi Jonathan Singer, a senior rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El, a Reform synagogue of about 2,000 households in San Francisco that plans to remain closed indefinitely. “We’re not going to follow the whims of the populace.”

When Newsom announced Monday that houses of worship could reconvene for services, he opened a pathway for Jewish congregants to return to shul for Shavuot —an auspicious parallel to the ancient pilgrimage they made to Jerusalem’s Great Temple for the festival of first fruits.

He issued the updated religious guidelines the same day California experienced its highest single-day increase in coronavirus cases. Total cases in the state crossed 100,000 on Wednesday. State legislators and infectious disease experts questioned the medical prudence of reopening this early in an article published Wednesday on Politico.

Congregation Emanu-El’s Singer said he thought Newsom was doing the best he could to safely accommodate the political pressure to reopen. But the state guidelines limit religious gatherings to 25% of capacity and a maximum of 100 people, making it clear to the rabbi that holding services of any size in an enclosed space was still unsafe.

Singer said he would wait for approval from public health experts in the Emanu-El community and from san Francisco Mayor London Breed before opening.

“Maimonides taught to understand that knowledge and wisdom is another way that God talks to us,” Singer said. “When I hear the scientists come up with a prudent response, that’s the voice of God talking to me, as opposed to a political leader, that’s trying to balance the whims and emotions of the larger society.”

In Los Angeles, where Mayor Eric Garcetti extended similarly conditional permission for religious gatherings on Tuesday, Orthodox synagogues are mostly holding the line drawn by the Orthodox Union, staying closed for at least 14 additional days after the initial go-ahead from public health officials. Rabbis of several congregations sent emails to their membership on Wednesday setting June 10, or the Shabbat of June 13, as the tentative reopen date.

Menachem Cohen, who leads the teen minyan at Congregation Shaarei Tefila, said that initial plans to reopen the building just for 15 to 20 teenagers to pray in the banquet hall were scrapped out of an abundance of caution.

“We had had a meeting and decided we’re going to be extra careful, how every single person will be wearing a mask, we’re going to provide masks, and everything that’s needed,” Cohen said. “We decided at the end there’s a little more to it.”

Even Shaarei’s outdoor parking lot, which had been considered as a prayer venue, will remain closed for the time being.

Congregations that are more religiously conservative than Shaarei, whose rabbi was among the signatories of a May 14 letter committing to the OU guidelines, are not all demonstrating the same patience.

Even before the governor had announced the updated guidelines, Congregation Etz Chaim, which is about a mile away from Shaarei Tefila in Los Angeles’ Hancock Park neighborhood, became the first to reopen on May 22. “Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission,” Etz Chaim rabbi Chaim Baruch Rubin said.

Etz Chaim’s modified sanctuary — operating at no greater than a quarter capacity, with all attendees required to wear masks — ultimately wound up predicting the city’s eventual guidelines.

On Wednesday, Agudath Israel, the umbrella organization of the American yeshiva world, green-lit reopening in California under public health guidelines in a press release. According to an Agudah spokesperson, some affiliated synagogues will not be ready to reopen until the Shabbat of June 5-6.

Rabbi Shlomo Klein of Congregation Ohr Hachaim, a Hasidic synagogue, confirmed that the shul would be open on Shavuot only for current members and on a very limited schedule. “We are following all CDPH [California Department of Public Health] guidelines,” he said.

Not all Agudah institutions are hurrying to open their doors. Rabbi Gershon Bess, Rov of Congregation Kehilas Yaakov, said in an email to The Forward that he did not have plans to reopen the shul, but would set up satellite outdoor minyanim in the interim. Not long after the Agudah email went out on Wednesday morning, Bess emailed an LA Times article to Kehilas Yaakov members about the threat of asymptomatic transmission.

Pikuach nefesh is not determined by the pressures on the government to open, but rather when we feel it is really safe,” Bess said. “That may take a little time to evaluate.”

Across town, Rabbi David Wolpe still hadn’t decided whether Sinai Temple, one of the largest Conservative synagogues in Los Angeles, was ready to reopen for a bar mitzvah this Shabbat. While Sinai’s Shabbat services frequently draw more than 700 people, the bar mitzvah would be an invitation-only event, making it easier to keep attendance under the required limit.

Rabbi David Wolpe Image by getty images

While the rabbi said he and the shul’s lay leadership had only been waiting for clearance from the city and state to reopen, whether the synagogue actually did so this Shabbat still depended on a number of technical needs, such as erecting a plastic barrier around the bimah. Sinai will not open for Shavuot.

The governor’s permission elicited mixed emotions from Wolpe, who noted that medically speaking, not much seemed to have changed in Los Angeles since last week.

“I acknowledge the necessity for reopening,” he said. “So many people’s lives have been stalled or in some cases really wrecked by the economic slowdown. But opening is also an anxiety-producing process.”

When it came to the question of how to accommodate a membership of over 1000 families with a capacity of 100, Wolpe had not been considering the logistics. “I’m not even sure how one would do that,” he said.

Congregation Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Pacific Palisades, California, will not be among the synagogues trying to figure it out.

Rabbi Amy Bernstein, KI’s senior rabbi, was on a call with the governor’s office and about a dozen other California faith leaders shortly before the ban on religious gatherings was lifted. According to Bernstein, an imam and a priest on the call — but no rabbis — said their congregants were pushing them to reopen.

She empathized with leaders who are wrestling with how to respond to such pressure, but was not facing similar decisions at her shul. In fact, Bernstein said KI’s live-streamed services were actually drawing larger audiences than they had in person, making an extended closure easier to cope with.

Rabbi Amy Bernstein

Rabbi Amy Bernstein Image by (Kehillat Israel)

Moreover, the rabbi said, gesturing to the steady increase in Covid-19 cases in both California and Los Angeles County, the governor’s permission did not suffice as an indicator of safety. Instead, Bernstein said the congregation would stay closed as long as necessary, even if that meant waiting for a vaccine.

“What’s changed?” said Bernstein. “Why would my community’s decision change? There was no research provided that told me anything I don’t already know and that my decision makers don’t already know about Covid-19 and its spread.”

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