“Has your shul reopened?” This is a topic of conversation when meeting at a neighborhood grocery. Regular shul-goers have had to grapple with praying at home for well over three months now. It was only recently that outdoor quorums had been allowed by local governments. Soon after, synagogues began opening their doors for socially distanced gatherings of ten men for a “minyan.” Around this time, leaders of many shuls sent their membership Google Forms inquiring about the demand for a minyan.

The New York reopening plan had placed the call for houses of worship to open their doors in its fourth phase, but good coronavirus metrics have prompted officials to alter their tactics. As the second phase of the reopening plan becomes a reality for much of New York State, shuls will be allowed to open at 25% capacity. New York City is set to enter this phase sometime in early July.

In our neighborhoods, there has been both acceptance and adherence to the initial rules set forth. In deference to the views and high levels of emotions, we will not depict each synagogue’s guidelines, nor will we discuss individual cases; rather we will provide a vision to soon reunite as in pre-COVID-19 conditions.

Some shuls have instituted a couple of minyanim on different levels of their facility, while others have changed the times of prayers to better suit those attending. There are those who have been forced to turn away congregants, as the buildings have already reached the ten-person maximum. Other shuls felt uncomfortable with these guidelines and chose to not hold services at all, as they were not in the game of choosing who should attend. Still others chose to conduct their services outside.

To add additional minyanim to a shul’s schedule would require others to become more comfortable with attending indoor gatherings altogether. It has been suggested by respectable community rabbanim that perhaps some of the young healthy men might find it appropriate to return to their respective shuls to assist with struggling services.

Avigdor N., who lives in Kew Gardens Hills, is in his late 20s and was approached by the rav of a well-known KGH shul, who pleaded for his return to their shul. “Why are you davening in a backyard minyan?” questioned the rabbi. “Would you not rather enjoy the holiness of the walls of our shul?” Avigdor was brought up with respect for community leaders and did not respond to the rabbi’s inquiries directly. Instead, Avigdor chose to voice his opinion to us. “I daven at home because I am afraid for my family. Someone in my home recovered from the virus and I could not bear responsibility if I passed this disease onto someone else, as I may be an asymptomatic carrier.”

Yosef L., also in his late 20s, living in KGH, was shamed by his friends for not going to an indoor shul minyan. “I daven at home because my shul is not sanitized after each minyan. I daven at home because the shul allows others to use communal prayer books. I daven at home because the baal k’riah does not both lein and receive all the brachos over the Torah reading. Others are called up for the various aliyos and there is not even a separation between the men,” explained the frustrated man.

Others have voiced opinions that minyanim may pose a risk to those who have credible health reasons for not attending or may have seniors or immunocompromised family members at home. The question looms: Is it worth the risk?

For Shabbos day services, some shuls organized separate groups of ten to pray outside with a communal Torah reading. Yossi M., an attendee at one of these unique prayer services in Kew Gardens, said, “It was an experience of a lifetime I could not pass up.”

Community leaders and politicians have been asked why George Floyd protesters were not demanded to be further distanced. “What makes these revelers different from us? We understand the need for a civil rights fight lasting over 400 years, but is every life not just as valuable, or is there a double standard?” posed an attendee at a webinar of community legislature representatives.

This past week, Rabbi Yaniv Meirov, Chazaq CEO, asked Congresswoman Grace Meng at her Zoom conference for Jewish community leaders when shuls might have their social distancing rules changed. Meng replied, “We are doing our best to keep the community safe when in quarantine, at work or at shul.” She added, “I have worked each day to give out PPE to different groups, all to protect from the virus, but we have to rely on science and the metrics on when to reopen.”

Former Council Member and current CEO of Met Council David Greenfield added to Meirov’s point and directed his retort to Dr. Madhury Ray, the critical care planning lead for COVID-19 at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Greenfield passionately expressed that the City has severely limited the practice of religion. “Does it make sense to only allow ten people into a shul that can house well over 1,000, when you have protests with thousands in parks marching side by side?” Greenfield continued, “The civil disobedience given to protesters is quite similar for those yearning to attend shuls. Why is there only guidance for protesters and not for those eager to get back to synagogues?” Ray agreed to bring the probe to the Department of Housing for investigation.

So, what might Phase Two eventually look like in shuls? Those desiring to participate in outdoor minyanim should proceed with the precautions they have been using and maintain the six-foot social distance. The size of the gathering may increase to 20 or 30 men. When indoors, an eight-foot social distance will probably be mandated, but the size of the group will be around 30, even if the room is quite large. Around the sefer Torah, extra caution should be taken, like no kissing; wearing gloves and sanitizing methods should be in place. When using an indoor shul, it is wise to ensure that extra seats are removed or covered to avoid potential errors in social distancing, and each group should have a friendly enforcer appointed. As at many stores, the doors and windows should be left ajar to reduce touching and increase ventilation. One should bring from home his own talis and necessary s’farim, as well as masks and any personal protection equipment. For shuls that are accustomed to washing rituals, daveners should consider doing these prior to entering the sanctuary, and should only use disposable paper to dry their hands. Bathroom needs should likewise be conducted prior to entry in the facility. Safety trumps all.

 By Shabsie Saphirstein

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