By Lee Chottiner
(Editor’s note: This is a revised version of an earlier story; it contains new information throughout.)
Earlier this summer, Louisville synagogues were throwing off the shackles imposed by a year-old COVID pandemic, opening their buildings for worship, loosening rules requiring masks and permitting more social interaction.
Then came Delta, a highly transmissible variant of COVID.
Now, with less than a month to go before the High Holy Days, and with case rates rising nationwide, including Jefferson County, synagogue leaders are making the difficult decision to retrench.
Three synagogues – Adath Jeshurun, Keneseth Israel and, most recently, Temple Shalom – have announced that they are closing their buildings until further notice.
In addition, AJ and Temple Shalom say their High Holy Day services will again be virtual this year, though Temple Shalom will hold an in-person Tashlich service at Brown Park.
KI and The Temple are still planning in-person High Holy services, though The Temple will offer limited seating under COVID restrictions. Both synagogues will also stream their services, and both will require masks, vaccinations and social distancing.
“In a global pandemic, the situation can rapidly change,” said an open letter to KI members from its COVID task force. “While we hope that this will be our final adjustment, we will continue to monitor the situation closely and we will adjust our plans as needed….”
Louisville Metro is at red status, which indicates an “high” incidence rate of confirmed cases. On Friday, 2,226 confirmed cases from the previous week – an average of 41.5 cases per 100,000 people – and 12 deaths were reported.
Nationally, hospitalizations and deaths are increasing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC says the current seven-day moving average of daily new cases stands at 114,190, an 18.4-percent increase over the previous period.
If KI closes for the High Holy Days, it will come as a major disappointment to Rabbi Ben Freed who will be marking his first Days of Awe period as spiritual leader of the congregation.
Freed said he would regret not meeting “all those congregants that I haven’t met yet [or] seeing Keneseth Israel filled with people,” if the services are virtual.
“I was looking forward to being more karov, more near, this year. It’s really said that we’ll [possibly] be more rachok, more distant,” he added, in a reference to Isaiah 57:19.
He added that he is committed to providing in-person experiences of some kind for the High Holy Days.
The Temple’s Reopening Task Force, which met last week, determined that only a limited number of members will be in the sanctuary for the High Holy Days, said Temple President Dr. Michael Salamon. The exact number of members and how they will be grouped, is still to be determined. The Task Force will meet again in two weeks.
“We’re going to provide a safe environment for our members; that is our mission,” Salamon said.
AJ and Anshei Sfard never lifted their mask policies.
Rabbi Robert Slosberg said AJ’s decision to close was done in consultation with a panel of seven physicians, local and national, representing various specialties and religions.
“They unanimously feel that this is in the best interest [of the congregation],” Slosberg said. “The Delta variant is so infectious.
“We do this with a very heavy heart,” he added, “but our position has been that we will do whatever our doctors tell us…and that is what we have done.”
AJ had been scheduled to complete its reopening on Aug. 9, when its morning minyans were to resume in person.
All that is now on hold.
“This thing is so infectious and easy to get,” Slosberg said. “There’s a growing number of break-through COVID cases [among vaccinated people], which alarmed all the doctors, and the pediatricians were showing a dramatic uptick in children.”
“This is a tragedy,” he added.
He hopes the variant will quickly sweep over the country then “plummet,” which is apparently happening in the United Kingdom. But he said that is contingent on what the unvaccinated do.
“We should never have gotten to this point,” Slosberg said. “The only good thing that will come out of this Delta variant is that it will encourage some people on the fence to get vaccinated, but there’s going to be more and more deaths, and it’s needless.”