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Re-Opening Our Synagogues: A Way Forward

If we wanted to re-open our synagogues, what are the necessary precautions we must take?
[additional-authors]
May 6, 2020
Photo by Izzet Keribar/Getty Images

I like going to synagogue. It’s painful that our synagogues have been on lockdown during this coronavirus pandemic. Just when we need a dose of connection, understanding and reflection — they’re not open for spiritual business. At the same time, because I’m a doctor, I am sensitive to the importance of keeping people healthy and safe.

The challenge in front of us, then, is this: If we wanted to re-open our synagogues, what are the necessary precautions we must take? How would we incorporate current civic guidelines? What are the open questions that still need to be considered?

These questions began to crystalize when I was asked to be an author on a COVID-19 national guideline for the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM)[1]. In reviewing all the science and coming through with our recommendations, faith gatherings were on the outs.

My thoughts below are a first step to bring these gatherings back in. I have consulted with rabbis, politicians, hospitals and medical colleagues. They are guidelines to consider as we move to a re-opening of our houses of worship. Remember that there is a medical/science answer and then a social determination.

What has to be emphasized is how important it is for religious leaders to build on their strengths. They must focus their thoughts on engagement, telling people what they CAN do, not what they can’t do. Spiritual leaders can actively change the mood of defeat and fear.

On the medical side, the information base is growing exponentially. Issues of transmission (droplet vs aerosol vs fomites), testing (PCR Antigen vs ELISA Antibody), treatment (outpatient or mild symptoms vs inpatient life-saving interventions) and prevention (social distancing, cleaning products and masks) are clarifying the field of battle. At the same time, the art of medicine reminds us that no test is perfect, no symptom always completely diagnostic and accepting uncertainty is what those of us on the front lines always do. There is no perfect answer that fits every situation or patient. People have to consult with their doctor now more than ever.

What has to be emphasized is how important it is for religious leaders to build on their strengths. They are not doctors, nurses or affiliated medical professionals. They already have enough on their plate taking care of the spiritual and psychological needs of so many. They must focus their thoughts on engagement, telling people what they CAN do, not what they can’t do. Spiritual leaders can actively change the mood of defeat and fear.

Clergy also has to think of making a strong value proposition of why congregants should come back. While I know this is a sensitive topic, people will opt to either stay home or do their own minyans. On a medical basis, a small home minyan may appear safer, but there’s no reason why a congregation that adheres to strict guidelines can’t be even more protective. At the end of the day, returning to a communal space remains our mission.

Steps that I have been recommending include accepting uncertainty but at the same time, being very attentive to risk groups. While not fully developed yet, it is far more probable that a healthy recovered individual will have protective antibodies that last for at least 6-9 months and probably years. Maybe having some of those congregants back early can start the nucleus of regeneration. Remind people that there is much literature of the negative health consequences of being out of work and socially isolated-participation in your faith community can help.

All of these suggestions are to give people a sense that re-opening our houses of worship is not an outlandish idea, but a feasible one if we do it responsibly.

Send a clear communication to congregants before opening the doors of all the concrete steps that your institution has promulgated — cleaning, plastic covering, making disposable gloves and paper towels available in key locations, arranging seats, tables or pews to allow families to be together while giving others some reasonable space. Maybe the Rabbis and Leaders can have small group Zoom sessions for a spiritual checkup and explain their preparations.  Maybe keep the younger ones at home for the first few weeks while everyone gets comfortable together. Have the doors propped open to limit touching. Keep the donation plates open and uncovered. Have designated leaders take responsibility for the logistics that were once an open-ended first-come-first-serve “honor” or “Aliyah”. Give congregants honors in advance so they know they count. Consider a set-up where minyans can sign up in advance to limit size. If you run minyans at homes, have the clergy rotate to visit.

All of these suggestions are to give people a sense that re-opening our houses of worship is not an outlandish idea, but a feasible one if we do it responsibly. I have been consulting with major Jewish institutions that are planning to release a formal statement outlining guidelines for re-opening. Synagogues will need all the help they can get.

Ultimately, this will always be a personal decision. Not every congregant will choose to opt-in right away. And for those who do, it will require from their synagogues detailed planning, due diligence, and constant monitoring. Committees of implementation will need to be formed.

There is a Yiddish proverb that says, “You can’t control the wind, but you can adjust the sails.” The coronavirus windstorm we are experiencing is unprecedented. But if we put all hands on deck, we will improve the odds of a successful return to our beloved synagogues. I’ll see you (hopefully soon) in shul.

Dr. Hyman practices on the front lines in Internal Medicine in Westwood. He lives in Beverlywood, with his wife and all four boys who are home during the pandemic.

[1] For those interested in the Guidelines: https://www.mdguidelines.com/

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