For months, local synagogues have adjusted to congregating virtually: Celebrations, memorials and prayers that bring people together in close quarters were reformatted for videoconferencing applications, to varying degrees of success.
On June 5, that may be changing for some synagogues and religious centers. Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, Delaware and Philadelphia counties will enter the “yellow” phase of Pennsylvania’s reopening plan. Among other eased restrictions, gatherings of up 25 people will be permitted, though not necessarily recommended.
That announcement was made by Gov. Tom Wolf on May 22. Around the same time, the national conversation about reopening religious spaces raged loudly. Supporters asked why their churches, mosques and synagogues weren’t considered essential services, while opponents warned that the loud singing and projecting of prayer and song was a surefire way to infect other congregants, distanced or otherwise.
At a press conference on the same day, President Donald Trump said that governors “need to do the right thing and allow these very important, essential places of faith to open right now for this weekend.”
“If they don’t do it, I will override the governors,” he said. “In America, we need more prayer, not less.”
For local synagogue leaders, who are also juggling input from their congregants and recommendations from larger religious associations, it’s a lot of competing information and priorities. Talking to those rabbis, many said that they’re not exactly jumping to be first in line to bring congregants back into their synagogues.
“We know people need to be back together, but we can’t do it until it’s safe,” Judy Izes said.
Izes, president of Adath Jeshurun Congregation, reports that her Elkins Park synagogue has convened several task forces to suss out potential roadblocks to reopening — and what can be done to get around them. They haven’t had in-person services since March 14 and, yellow phase or not, they’re not planning them for the near future, either.
“Our focus is on keeping people safe,” Izes said, “and our understanding is that one of the riskiest situations that people can be in is in a closed room where many people are talking, praying, singing, chanting, at the same time.”
Meanwhile, Izes and the rest of the lay leadership have worked with the clergy to keep up with the constantly evolving recommendations from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the Jewish Federations of North America and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
At Lubavitch of Bucks County, it’s a different story.
Rabbi Yehuda Shemtov, executive director, is looking forward to once again being able to “provide the things that cannot be provided online,” beginning on June 5. Though the building has been closed, Lubavitch of Bucks County’s online offerings have been extensive. Thus, Shemtov emphasized, calling it a “reopening” would be a misnomer.
“Not everybody’s going to be comfortable with coming out in public at this point, which is fine,” Shemtov said. “We just want to make it available for those who need it, those who want it, as long as it’s within the proper guidelines.”
Worshipers will sit at a distance from one another, he said.
And, he laughed, “I don’t anticipate a mad dash at the doors.”
All of the synagogue representatives contacted underlined their desire to exercise caution.
Rabbi Gregory Marx of Congregation Beth Or in Ambler said his congregants “yearn to come back into their sacred place,” but highly doubted that they will be permitted back in the building on June 5. He’ll continue to follow the guidance of the Greater Philadelphia Board of Rabbis.
“I’m inclined to do this slowly, and I don’t think we need to be the first people out of the gate,” he said.
At Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, staff and clergy will come back to work in the building on June 15, with sanitary precautions in place. Smaller, intimate celebrations and religious services are coming, according to Joel Ginsparg, president of the synagogue, but most likely in July.
“There’s a lot to be done, and a lot to study and analyze to be able to do that safely,” he said.
Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid in Broomall will bring some of its religious school students back on June 29. Larry Gorson-Marrow, the synagogue’s executive director, doesn’t know how the congregation will react; some will come back right away, while others will wait and see.
“We’re going to follow what the governor and what our local community wants us to do,” he said.