Earlier this summer, Rabbi Joe Hample began writing a High Holiday sermon he can no longer deliver.
The theme was “thank God the pandemic is receding,’” said Hample, who leads Tree of Life in Morgantown, West Virginia. “And now the pandemic is bouncing back so I have to change the sermon. I’m torn between panic and apathy.”
He’s panicked, he said, because there isn’t much time left before the replacement sermon has to be ready, and apathetic because this week his congregation decided to stop offering in-person services and resume virtual ones, and he’s not sure that many people are going to tune in. One congregant, he said, suggested he just replay his last year’s sermon.
There’s a chance that by Rosh Hashanah, or maybe Yom Kippur, the 80 families who belong to Tree of Life could still gather in their sanctuary over the holidays. But Hample can’t be sure at this point.“Everything is up in the air. It is what it is but it’s not the High Holidays you dream of,” he said.
Not so many weeks ago, the dream had seemed attainable.
With highly-vaccinated congregations, and COVID-19 cases on the wane, shuls across the nation were going to fling open their doors for the High Holidays. The shofar would be heard indoors, in person. Backyard minyans? So very 2020.
Then Delta hit, and a significant swath of clergy, synagogue directors and their ad hoc medical committees decided that the highly contagious COVID-19 variant, and breakthrough infections among those who have received the vaccine, required a course correction.
For some synagogues the predominance of the Delta variant changes nothing. But many, like Tree of Life, have made significant adjustments just in the past week or so, deciding to go online, or scrambling to rent a tent for an outdoor service that had been planned for indoors.
Among those making last minute changes is Congregation B’nai Torah in Boca Raton, Fla., which announced on Wednesday that it was canceling in-person services.
“The risks to many are too great for us to be together physically in the building at this time,” it said in an email to members, adding that as disappointing as the decision was to make, “it is in keeping with our highest values of serving our community, protecting the health of our most vulnerable, and pikuach nefesh - saving even a single life.”
A similar decision to go all-virtual over the High Holidays was made a few days earlier by Temple Beth El of Huntington, N.Y., which involved the clergy, ritual committee and temple board. “From what I’ve heard, most local temples are still debating in-person vs. virtual,” said Temple President Mitch Kittenplan.
And as of Friday, although in-person Rosh Hashanah services are a go at Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, Wisc., Yom Kippur services have not been finalized because of uncertainty about COVID-19, according to Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman.
In the meantime, the synagogue is going to be tracking regional infection rates, especially since public schools and the University of Wisconsin will also be in session. “We have contingency plans to do Yom Kippur services at an outdoor park with a shelter, if necessary,” she said. “I hope it is not necessary.”
She added that on the advice of the synagogues’ medical advisers, “all shofar blowing will be outside.”Temple Beth Torah in Melville, L.I., has revamped its High Holiday plan twice since the beginning of August. It has settled on in-person services in its sanctuary for those who can show proof of vaccination, and livestreaming the service outside, under a tent for the unvaccinated and all children under 12 — for whom the vaccine is not yet available.
Rabbi Susie Moskowitz said she expected only 10 to 20 percent of the 500-family congregation to attend services in the sanctuary and the remainder to split themselves between the tent and watching the livestream at home.
Many other synagogues are choosing to allow only the vaccinated indoors for the High Holidays.
Adas Israel, with more than 1,500 families, in Washington, D.C., will ask for proof of vaccination at the door and hold tented services, led by clergy, in its parking lot for the unvaccinated. The Huntington Jewish Center on Long Island is planning to hold services in its sanctuary for the vaccinated. One tent in the parking lot will be for family services and the other for adults who will watch a live stream from the sanctuary.
Chabad, in general, has an open door policy at its synagogues but still allows each rabbi to set his own attendance rules.“Some congregations may ask about vaccinations and others may trust those in their community,” said Rabbi Motti Seligson, Chabad’s director of media relations. “Some congregations are providing indoor and some outdoor services. Almost all will be doing outdoor shofar events and follow local health guidelines.”
Deciding on a plan for High Holiday services is more difficult than it was last year, said Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, N.J.
Then, synagogue leadership had a better handle on the public health crisis — what was permissible and what was not. “Now it is very hard to make everybody feel safe and included – the two things you want for your community. I think this year presents a tougher logistical and spiritual challenge,” she said, adding that her synagogue is still working on its High Holiday plan to balance inclusion and safety and may make changes between now and the holidays.
Sometimes those safety decisions are not entirely based on COVID-19.
The leadership of Or Hadash, a Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington, Pa., has determined that its 150 families will not attend High Holiday services outdoors “because of the rising tide of antisemitism,” according to Rabbi Alanna Sklover, its spiritual leader.
While there were no specific threats against Or Hadash or many the region, the overall spike in antisemitism has been a concern, especially since Israel’s war with Gaza in May. “We didn’t want people to think about being vulnerable,” she said, so most of the synagogue’s holiday services will be online only.
Stewart Ain, an award-winning veteran journalist, covers the Jewish community.
Synagogues scramble as Delta throws a wrench into High Holiday planning