Louisville synagogues are staying closed for now despite Gov. Andy Beshear’s phased reopening plan.
Following Gov. Andy Beshear’s announcement that houses of worship could resume services on May 20 under phase one of his reopening plan, Anshei Sfard was prepared to do just that.
The congregation had planned to hold a Shabbat service at its Shalom Towers synagogue. Worshippers would wear masks, the kiddush would be omitted and congregating afterwards would be discouraged.
But that was before Rabbi Simcha Snaid jumped on an Orthodox Union webinar last week featuring Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and a member of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force.
Afterwards, Snaid called Anshei Sfard President Myrle Davis, and then Community, to announce that plans had changed, the congregation will stay closed for now.
“I can understand there was a certain excitement, and yes, I might have deflated that bubble,” Snaid said, “but preserving a life is most important and we must take certain precautions.”
According to Snaid, Fauci used the program to offer advice and guidelines for a gradual reopening of synagogues.
When he was done, though, OU leaders asked participants to stay on the call. That’s when they were asked to delay their reopenings, even if their states permit them.
Snaid said the request was based on advice from the OU’s halachic authorities. “I will defer to them and that’s what we are going to do.”
Anshei Sfard is typical of other Louisville synagogues, all of which have decided, for now, to remain closed. In fact, most of them, as Community has previously reported, are reporting significant increases in attendance at their services via Zoom.
For Orthodox Jews, though, the closure has been more difficult. Unlike other synagogues, Orthodox congregations like Anshei Sfard are prohibited from streaming services on Shabbat, which they say would violate the halachic prohibition against making fire on the day of rest. They also believe that a virtual minyan does not replace the halachic requirement of at least 10 men to read from the Torah.
“We can’t read the Torah and do Zoom streaming on the computer for our services,” said Davis, president of Anshei Sfard. “We have to get together or individually daven (pray).”
Anshei Sfard, like other synagogues, churches, mosques and temples, are hard-pressed to decide when the right time is to resume communal worship.
Plenty of questions remain: How many people will be allowed to congregate? Under what circumstances? Should older members stay home?
The governor’s office is providing few details at this time.
“We are working with faith leaders to prepare reopening guidance that will be issued well in advance of May 20,” Communications Director Crystal Staley said in a statement.
She invited synagogue leaders to submit their input to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For some synagogues, that guidance won’t matter.
“Until doctors tell us there’s a minimal risk and it would be unlikely for people to be harmed, we’re just not going to do it,” said Rabbi Robert Slosberg of Adath Jeshurun.
Even if AJ reopened, and all the worshippers appeared healthy, he said, one asymptomatic member could still infect an entire minyan.
“You could even take their temperature and they would be normal,” Slosberg said, “but they’d be infected. Then the place gets it. This is a very infectious disease.”
Other congregations are preparing for an eventual reopening, though they are not planning to do so just yet.
“We’ve been working on an updated strategy ever since the governor posted the new guidelines,” said The Temple President Reed Weinberg. “We’re going to continue zooming and streaming all services and activities right now. We might consider having a limited number of people in the building, but nothing is finalized until we have a multi-step plan.”
Early in the pandemic, The Temple did stream services from its building with just the rabbi and a couple participants on the bima, but it has moved away from that model.
“At this time, we’re not allowing people into the building,” Weinberg said. “Before, you would let a person sit on the bima to light the candles or say kiddush. Now, they’re just zooming those people in.”
The rabbi and music leaders still gather in the same space, he added.
Temple Shalom has confirmed it will not reopen this month, and Keneseth Israel Executive Director Yonatan Yussman called the prospect “highly unlikely,” though he said KI is consulting Rabbinical Assembly guidelines as it considers its final decision.
Rabbi Avrohom Litvin, of Chabad of Kentucky, said they are “contemplating” reopening for Shavuot, though they won’t make that decision until May 25.
Like Anshei Sfard, Chabad has also stopped services during the pandemic. Litvin said misses the “fellowship” of actual services, but the need for prayer has not diminished.
“During times of crisis, there is a different way to connect to God, which is through private prayer,” he said.
Snaid said his congregation now has no set date for reopening.
He said it’s tempting to reopen given how well Kentucky has done flattening its infection rate.
“Our numbers have been pretty low compared to other areas,” Snaid said, “so if I looked at Louisville as a bubble, maybe it would be OK to reopen, but the halachic authorities are asking, even if you live in a low-risk area, please refrain from reopening.”
He believes that’s the right call.
“I feel happy knowing I’m doing the right thing,” he said.