Some Philly-Area Shuls Are Planning for In-Person High Holiday Services

boys in masks in synagogue sanctuary
At B’nai Abraham Chabad, congregants will be masked and at a distance from each other during the High Holidays. | Photo by
Moussia Goldman

The mystics teach that on Rosh Hashanah, God pauses to reflect on creation, and the universe enters a state of suspended animation. In that sense, Rabbi Yochonon Goldman believes, the holiday came a few months early this year.

Goldman, of B’nai Abraham Chabad in Society Hill, will attempt to bring a little movement back to the universe on the High Holidays, as his synagogue plans to hold in-person services. B’nai Abraham Chabad is one of many across the region to make such a decision, based on frank internal discussions, months of planning and a desire to congregate.

Many (though not all) of the synagogues that decided to be in-person are Orthodox and, like any good Jewish conundrum, there are different interpretations of what the key term — “in-person” — actually means. Some services will be indoors, and others will be outside; some will only involve those in the sanctuary, and others will bring in more worshipers via livestream. Some will pare down the services to minimize the time spent in a group, and others will forgo that practice.

All of them will hear the sound of the shofar; at B’nai Abraham Chabad, those who aren’t comfortable with the indoor service will at least be able to hear the blast at outdoor gatherings.

“We want people to do what works for them, what feels best for them, what makes them feel connected spiritually,” Goldman said. “And that’s why we’re trying to offer something for everyone.”

tents and benches arranged outdoors on grass
Members of Kehillat Sha’arei Orah, a Modern Orthodox minyan in Bala Cynwyd, will use a backyard for High Holiday services. | Photo by Hannah Hamermesh

B’nai Abraham Chabad would typically host 300 members and guests in a single indoor gathering; this year, the synagogue will have two separate, simultaneous, full services in two different sanctuaries inside the building, at about 20% of the normal capacity. Masks will be required, and attendees will be pre-screened.

According to Rabbi Shaya Deitsch, director of the Lubavitch of Montgomery County in Fort Washington, every area Chabad congregation will have in-person services, though not all will be indoors. Goldman said that Chabad leadership provided advice from medical professionals on how to do so safely.

Just a short walk away from B’nai Abraham Chabad, Congregation Mikveh Israel will host 50 congregants in its parking lot, a far cry from their typical 200. Two outdoor tents will be set aside, one for adults and another for children. Congregants will be masked, and clear social distancing markers will be in place.

Congregation B’nai Israel – Ohev Zedek, an Orthodox synagogue in Rhawnhurst, will offers its congregants indoor and outdoor options; either requires a mask for anyone attending. BIOZ Rabbi Yehoshua Yeamans mentioned Congregation Ahavas Torah in Northeast Philadelphia and Lower Merion Synagogue and Young Israel of the Main Line, both in Bala Cynwyd, as other synagogues committed to in-person services.

It’s a tad simpler for small groups.

Will Keller, the incoming president of Kehillat Sha’arei Orah, a Modern Orthodox minyan in Bala Cynwyd, said that they’ll be able to safely and comfortably host their members under tents in a large backyard.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that these sorts of gatherings are important for community building, and our spiritual life is very important,” Keller said. “And, at the same time, we were all trying to make sure that our ritual lives don’t have a negative impact on the health of our county or community.”

There are also some large, suburban Conservative synagogues that have a different interpretation of “in-person.”

Take Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park. The first day of Rosh Hashanah, according to Rabbi Charles Sherman, typically brings around 400 worshipers to the synagogue. There were discussions about pre-recording services, but Sherman ultimately felt that it was too impersonal — like “watching a football game,” he said. He wanted congregants to hear his banter with the cantor, and for the service to feel participatory, even from home; he even wanted to preserve the bumps and mistakes that can come up throughout a long service.

Now, MBIEE will livestream its in-person services, featuring 15 to 20 people.

“It will be different,” Sherman said.

Replacing a service of 400 is one thing; how about replacing a service that typically draws 2,000?

That’s what Rabbi Neil Cooper and Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood have to figure out this year. The Conservative synagogue will, instead, host no more than 50 inside its sanctuary, with a simultaneous livestream that can be accessed by individuals or groups of families gathering on their own.

Services will have a drastically different feel, Cooper knows. Then again, what hasn’t, since March?

“I’m excited,” Cooper said. “I’ve missed the direct contact with congregants. It’s going to be a little strange, but even just the idea of being back in the sanctuary for the first time in six months is exciting, and it’s going to be very special.”

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