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Synagogues stay essential as buildings stay closed

Human Resources
Lee Chottiner

Lee Chottiner

As Community has reported online and in this printed edition, most of Louisville’s synagogues have elected not to reopen just now.
Their decisions are in line with what many congregations nationwide are doing in response to the coronavirus and COVID-19.
Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jewish leaders have said they will follow the advice of medical experts and remain closed for the time being – this despite President Donald Trump’s assertion last week that churches, synagogues and mosques should reopen now.
At a White House news conference this past weekend, Trump said houses of worship are “essential services” and took aim at certain unidentified governors for remaining closed.
“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential but have left out churches and other houses of worship,” he said. “That’s not right.”
The National Governors Association had no comment on the president’s remarks, but Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear has permitted houses of worship here to resume in-person services, though the guidelines under which they will operate urge places of worship to continue with “alternative services” where “practicable.”
There are good reasons for synagogues to stay closed:
Singing – either by cantor, choir or Jew in the pew – can facilitate the spread of the virus.
Many worshippers also belong to the age groups most susceptible to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Jews and non-Jews tend to greet each other with handshakes and embraces when in their places of worship – practices that simply can’t be done now for obvious reasons. What if people forget themselves once they’re together again?
But here’s the main point: Synagogues don’t need brick and mortar to be essential. They need committed clerics and congregants to keep them viable. And they have them.
Need proof? Most local rabbis and cantors have reported surges in attendance at their Zoom services and classes since the pandemic began. The same is true at congregations around the country.
“My synagogue is open. It’s open every day,” wrote Hazzan Jesse Merlin Holzer of Jacksonville, Florida, on Facebook. “Because my synagogue is not a building. It’s the people who are helping each other and their community. It is the prayers for those who are struggling medically, financially and emotionally My synagogue never closed. It just opened in every home.”
Some brick and mortar synagogues are slowly reopening. In New Jersey, JTA reported, the Bergen County Rabbinical Association has announced that it expects minyans there to be held starting June 4. (Bergan County is believed to have been the first place in the country to shut down Jewish communal life back in March.)
And in Georgia, some synagogues have experimented with holding services outdoors, where the threat of infection is not thought to be as great. Synagogues in Kentucky may choose to experiment with this model.
Many of the synagogues that have elected to reopen now are Orthodox, which is understandable. It’s important to remember that most Orthodox Jews have not worshipped communally during the pandemic, halachically prohibited from livestreaming on Shabbat or accepting virtual minyans. That must make their social distancing far more difficult.
Whatever they choose, the decision to reopen will likely be the most difficult one synagogue leaders have faced. On one hand, Jews crave community; it’s integral to the way we worship – has been since the rise of the synagogue thousands of years ago.
On the other hand, the coronavirus is still with us; don’t be fooled by the warm weather and happy talk. In fact, most medical experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci himself, have warned of a second wave of infections this fall. Will that wave be made worse by relaxing social distancing this summer?
Yes, synagogues are essential. No, they are not stores with customers. What they give, though more meaningful in person, is not meaningless online. Prudence in deciding to reopen should be the order of the day.
(Lee Chottiner is the editor of The Jewish Louisville Community.)

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