Synagogues Start Returning to In-person Events

A recent Kabbalat Shabbat service hosted by Makom Community | Photo by Beverly Socher-Lerner

They’re coming in for confirmation and Kabbalat Shabbat. There’s a mock-up Israeli shuk coming to Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid, sitars and flamenco guitar at Congregation Beth Sholom and dancing in the alley behind Makom Community at 20th and Sansom streets.

All across the Philadelphia area, increased vaccination rates and declining positivity rates in COVID-19 tests are allowing synagogues and other Jewish community hubs to dip their toes back into hosting in-person community events, if ever-so gingerly. Though no one appears to be rushing back for indoor, maskless events in the near future, synagogue leaders like Rabbi Eric Yanoff at Adath Israel on the Main Line are able to squint and see something akin to regular life.

“I’m hopeful that we gradually move toward a sense of normalcy,” Yanoff said of the summer.

At Adath Israel, the first sign that congregants might be willing to attend cultural and communal events again came at Pesach. The synagogue’s outdoor barbecue required congregants to wear masks, but the next person to eat a grilled hot dog with a mask on will be the first; while their parents ate, children played field games that also necessitated mask removal here and there. For that outdoor event in late March, Adath Israel declared a 100-person capacity; it sold out easily.

“People were so happy to be there,” Yanoff recalled.

That was months ago. As of June 1, 57% of all Pennsylvanians have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, according to The New York Times, and a sufficient number of Adath Israel congregants feel safe enough that other pre-pandemic staples are returning, though in adjusted form. There have been weekly kiddush spreads outdoors, and two confirmation classes graduated together.

Yanoff doesn’t think that there would have been enough congregants comfortable with in-person gathering able to host kiddushes two months ago.

The medical professionals on the synagogue’s reopening task force have made recommendations based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and will continue to do so. However, they must also take the subjective comfort of their congregants into account, “to have a listening heart and a listening ear to where our people are,” Yanoff said. The task force will cross the indoor events bridge when they come to it. In the meantime, their minds are on the next looming challenge: High Holidays.

Students in Adath Israel’s confirmation program taught their parents and teachers on May 16. | Photo by Rabbi Eric Yanoff

At CBENT, preparations are being made for a June 6 event called “Pathways to Israel — Mind, Motion and Munchies.” Congregants who attend will get a shuk-like atmosphere at the Broomall synagogue, with activities like Hebrew language workshops, Krav Maga demonstrations and a shofar-making workshop. It’s not quite a pre-pandemic event — it will still be outdoors — but it’s not far off.

“We decided that this was the time, things are starting to get back to normal, but we still did not want to have everything indoors,” said Amy Blake, synagogue co-president.

In April, rounding up enough congregants who were comfortable with such an event would have been out of the question; in May, it would have likely been an open one. But in June, that critical mass of congregants has been reached. At “Pathways to Israel — Mind, Motion and Munchies,” masks will still be required, but as with Adath Israel’s barbecue, the presence of refreshments will make 100%, wire-to-wire compliance impossible.

Though indoor events without masks are likely to be beyond the pale “for a while,” Blake said, it’s an exciting time for CBENT. Communal gatherings that seemed out of reach for a year are becoming possible again.

That’s been the case at Makom Community, too, where the educational center for children was able to comfortably host around 70 parents and children for lively Kabbalat Shabbat services in the alley behind the building. They’d been hosting children inside on and off for parts of 2020 and 2021, but as Makom founding director Beverly Socher-Lerner put it, “this school year has been what I’m lovingly calling the pivot Olympics.” Rising and falling infection rates have guided the decision making of Makom’s leadership, and they will continue to be sensitive to the numbers.

What that means practically is that Makom will take baby steps on the way back to normalcy. For a recent Kabbalat Shabbat celebration, attendees were given grape juice and popsicles as they left the alley. Next: serving food while people are still together, outside.

“When we did suddenly see 70 people in the back of Makom, we weren’t like, ‘Oh, no, this is a lot of people,’” said Amanda Phillips, Center City director of Makom. “But rather, ‘This is such an exciting opportunity that we now have and [for] everyone to feel comfortable and safe doing so.’” The next steps will come as new guidelines from public health bodies are released.

Beth Sholom Congregation recently hosted its first indoor, in-person cultural event since March 2020. Congregants who wished to attend an a cappella show from the group Six13 were required to show proof of vaccination, which they were more than happy to do according to Robin Minkoff, executive director of the synagogue.

“They want to return to normalcy,” Minkoff said, “with respect for both the law and whatever Beth Sholom chooses to do regarding this pace of reopening.”

But an in-person, indoor, masked event doesn’t just happen because the synagogue decides that it’s time. It also needs enough Beth Sholom congregants — “a rising groundswell” of them, in Minkoff’s words — who are enthusiastic about doing so.

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