When should Orthodox synagogues reopen?
In Los Angeles, rabbis of more than a dozen Orthodox institutions united behind guidelines put forth in a May 8 white paper issued by the Orthodox Union (OU) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). The guidelines pump the brakes as Orthodox community leaders across the country begin to consider when and how they can safely reconvene amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but as Los Angeles County’s new cases have stubbornly plateaued.
Also on May 8, California moved to its second phase of reopening, in which some lower-risk businesses, including faith-based workspaces, can reopen with social distancing guidelines. That the allowance for places of worship includes only their employees, and does not extend to gatherings of their congregants, was the subject of a letter sent from the Justice Department to California governor Gavin Newsom casting the rule as “differential treatment.”
“No one should be taking it upon themselves to make the judgement that the value of a minyan outstrips the disease or even death that might result, or outweighs our obligations to abide by the law,” read the letter from the Los Angeles rabbis.
Meanwhile in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday that religious gatherings of up to ten people were now permitted statewide.
Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, who was one of the 18 signatories on the letter, said that a similar announcement by Newsom or Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti wouldn’t change the timeline. “Right now the OU’s position has been based on the halachic authorities that they spoke to that we should wait two weeks before we open shuls. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t reopen minyanim, but shuls have a whole other calculus.”
The 13-point OU document, which focuses primarily on the logistics of communal prayer, instructs shuls to wait a minimum of two weeks after local health authorities have allowed gatherings of ten or more people to reopen, and suggests forbidding people over 65 and severely obese congregants from attending. It also extends a prohibition on private outdoor minyanim in the interim.
A number of poskim, or adjudicators of Jewish law, physicians, infectious disease specialists and health officials contributed to the drafting of the guidelines, according to Rabbi Adir Posy, director of the OU’s Synagogue and Community Services division, who is based in Los Angeles. The advisory council included National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci, who reportedly expressed optimism that shuls could be reopening across the country by the High Holidays, albeit in a modified manner.
Rabbi Dr. Aaron Blatt, chairman of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai Hospital of South Nassau and assistant rabbi at Young Israel of Woodmere, also consulted on the guidelines. He said that while pikuach nefesh, or the preservation of human life, was the overriding concern of the recommendations, reopening shuls could become halachically advisable with a certain minimization of risk.
“There’s a principle called dash bei rabim [literally: the fire burns publicly],” said Rabbi Blatt. “Things that people are willing to accept, that are of a low enough risk, that are allowed to halachically do even though they could lead to death.”
The same principle explained why shuls would not wait until everyone could attend to reopen.
“We’re talking about gradations of risk,” Rabbi Posy said, adding, “We’re going to do as much as we can as we can do it safely.”
The OU guidelines were released as several states began reopening after months of shelter-in-place orders, and they attempt to accommodate the varied approaches those states have taken. The document also comes after a Hasidic funeral in Brooklyn drew thousands on April 29, creating a public spectacle that generated a firestorm of criticism.
Avoiding potential chilul Hashem, or desecration of God’s name, was certainly among the factors considered, Blatt said. But Posy suggested that while waiting the extra two weeks responds to that concern, it would have been recommended even had the Williamsburg incident never occurred. Hasidic communities generally do not fall under the OU umbrella.
“We would have stressed that whatever you do needs to be predicated on your assumption of compliance, and in fact, reversed if that compliance is not there,” Posy said.
Ultimately, though, the document delegates responsibility to the institutions and their leaders. It suggests that shuls act in concert not only with local health regulations but with each other.
Moreover, the guidelines do not include any enforcement mechanism, such as expulsion from the OU, for violating the letter or the spirit of the recommendations. Rabbi Posy said that was never the prerogative in writing them.
“We don’t see ourselves as a punitive or enforcement arm of the Jewish community,” he said.
The most severe caution in the guidelines was directed toward people over age 65 and the obese, populations that are more vulnerable to Covid-19’s assault on the immune system. Those groups, as well as those with any of a host of enumerated pre-existing health conditions such as lung disease or hypertension, “should be forbidden - or at the least highly discouraged - from attendance” at services, the document says.
While the guidelines were written in consultation with rabbis of various ages from across the country, all four poskim listed on the document — Hershel Schachter and Mordechai Willig of Yeshiva University, Dovid Cohen of Congregation Gvul Ya’avitz in Brooklyn and Asher Weiss of Machon Minchas Osher L’Torah V’Horaah in Israel — are over 65. Posy said that he “absolutely” expected them to continue staying home.
Nevertheless, the guidelines will pose tough decisions for clergy members who fall into the aforementioned categories, Blatt said.
“That’s a question each rav has to ask his own poskim,” Blatt said. “It depends on his shul, depends on his circumstances. If it’s one of eight rabbis in the shul, then maybe he doesn’t have to go. If he’s the only rabbi in the community, that the community is relying on, he has to ask a question — am I allowed to go, and under what circumstances.”
The picture of prayer services sketched out by the guidelines is radically different from the ritual Orthodox Jews are accustomed to. Seating will be marked off to maintain eight feet distance between congregants, limiting capacity to the extent that some synagogues may require its members to alternate weeks of attendance. Services will begin at Barchu, the first prayer for which a minyan is required. The Torah will no longer be carried around shul, and masks will be worn at all times. It may be ideal for services to be held not inside a sanctuary, but outdoors, weather permitting.
Furthermore, routine honors such as leading services, laining from the Torah, and receiving aliyot may all belong to the same person to limit interpersonal contact. Blatt said it could not be determined how long droplets would last on a Torah scroll or a siddur due to the countless variables in play.
Such a jarring departure from ritual norms would deprive communal prayer of some social and even spiritual nourishment, Posy said, but the halachic obligation remained regardless of those religious externalities.
“That’s the nature of who we are as halachic Jews,” he said.
Posy added that fulfilling the ritual obligation to pray with a minyan, or a quorum of ten men, carries social and spiritual benefits on its face.
“The nature of all of the spiritual rewards, so to speak, that are given throughout Chazal [the writings of the Sages] about what tefillah betzibur [group prayer] can accomplish, and the way that God hears the prayers when they’re given in the tzibur context, we will be able to achieve in a greater way when we can daven in our fullest way,” he said.
Fauci, who has been the most visible and prominent health authority during the pandemic, became involved in the process after doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and infectious disease specialists from around the country created a rough outline and the four poskim reviewed it. Summary points were sent to Fauci for comment, and the OU convened a call with the NIAID director and national synagogue leadership to receive his feedback. The guidelines then received one more round of review from medical and rabbinic decisionmakers.
Posy said that Fauci commended the OU’s cautious approach, and echoed, in particular, the final point, which states that scientific knowledge about Covid-19 antibodies is currently too limited to consider anyone immune to contracting the virus. As such, those who have tested positive for antibodies should still consider themselves susceptible and behave accordingly.
But Fauci did offer some good news in the form of what he called a “non-prophetic” estimate of the reopening timeline.
“With certain precautions in place, he felt that by High Holidays, synagogues could be very much open and running across the country, with a variation for different localities,” Posy said.
Fauci reportedly qualified that it would still be some time — potentially years — before services, High Holiday or otherwise, return to their traditional format.
“It’s not going to be the normal you’re used to, and it’s going to be a new normal,” said Posy. “The way he described it was, at least two or three [seasonal] cycles until they have a really significant vaccine or eradication of the virus.”
Muskin, who is a former president of the Rabbinical Council of America, which co-presented the OU guidelines, said the future of communal prayer remained murky in spite of them.
“I think it’s a little premature to figure out how you’re going to handle the High Holidays,” Muskin said. “Every day the facts change on the ground. Every shul is going to [plan for] it, but the truth is we don’t even know what it’s going to be like. How many people will be allowed in the sanctuary, come September? I have no idea.”
Louis Keene is a journalist in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @thislouis.