Coronavirus Prompts Closures of LA Synagogues

March 18, 2020
The exterior of the Nessah Synagogue. (Toglenn/Wkimedia Commons)

Many local synagogues have closed their doors in response to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and the ban on large public gatherings.

In addition, a Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy parent and a student at Yeshiva University Los Angeles Girls High have tested positive for the virus after attending the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., at the beginning of the month.

For Orthodox congregations, the spread of the disease has led to rabbis urging their congregants to pray at home. In non-Orthodox communities, Jewish life has ventured into the digital realm.

A March 16 letter signed by 22 Pico-Robertson-based Orthodox rabbis and community leaders stated: “Our shuls and schools will remain closed until further notice, when we are informed by the health officials that it is no longer a danger and we may resume our regular schedules. Until that time, every person should daven at home. There should be no house or backyard minyanim (quorum gathering of 10 men) since they undermine efforts to minimize the spread of the virus.” Signatories of the letter included B’nai David-Judea Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, Pico Shul Rabbi Yonah Bookstein and Beverly Hills Synagogue Rabbi Pini Dunner.

By later that day, more area synagogues had signed on to the letter, following a March 15 conference call with New York-based infectious disease specialist Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt and Dr. Richard Riggs of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Last Shabbat, the Happy Minyan, an Orthodox and Shlomo Carlebach-style shul that operates out of a storefront karate studio in Pico-Robertson, canceled its joint Friday night services with Pico Shul. In a March 13 announcement, the congregation said its demographic was 80% in the high-risk category of COVID-19, which disproportionately affects older people.

And while the Happy Minyan did hold Shabbat morning services, it asked those in attendance to refrain from contact of any kind and did not serve its traditional Kiddush meal after services. Pico Shul also held services on Shabbat morning but requested only healthy people attend. It also suspended Kiddush lunch until further notice and asked people to go home and not congregate after services. It did, however, offer a musical pre-Shabbat online gathering via Zoom on March 13.

Temple Beth Am also canceled all on-site synagogue and school programs as well as prayer services for the week of March 16. Its website noted that there would be no Shabbat services on March 20 and 21, as well.

The Pacific Jewish Center (Shul on the Beach), on the Venice Boardwalk, limited its activities last Shabbat to minyan and prayer, saying that because it has “much smaller general attendance and capacity than a number of the larger shuls in the area, we have not received advisories to shut down religious services by local health authorities or by rabbinic and Torah leaders.”

IKAR initially had planned a small Shabbat morning service with a handful of congregants, including those saying mourner’s Kaddish, and intended to livestream it through the congregation’s Facebook page. However, the small gatherings were canceled after IKAR learned an attendee at its recent Purim Megillah reading had a relative who had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Instead, IKAR relied exclusively on livestreaming. Before Shabbat on March 13, Rabbi Sharon Brous shared words of Torah on Facebook Live. On Shabbat morning, Chazan Hillel Tigay sang songs via Facebook Live and said mourner’s Kaddish, and Rabbi Ronit Tsadok led a Facebook Live Havdalah ceremony on Saturday evening.

“We hope that these many points of virtual contact will reinforce how deeply connected we all are to one another,” IKAR said in a statement.

Kehillat Israel had a parent of one of its religious school students test positive for COVID-19. After forming a coronavirus task force composed of trustees, clergy and staff, the Pacific Palisades Reconstructionist congregation has canceled, postponed or moved to virtual formats for services and events through April 19.

“We hope that these many points of virtual contact will reinforce how deeply connected we all are to one another.” — IKAR

In Beverly Hills, Nessah Synagogue, a predominately Iranian Jewish congregation, suspended all in-person religious services, classes and social activities for two weeks through March 27, the Nessah board of directors said.

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills has suspended all in-person programs and services through March 22.

Sinai Temple announced it would be offering Shabbat morning services via livestream only, at 9:30 a.m. every Saturday until further notice. Beginning March 15, the congregation has been offering daily minyan services through its website (sinaitemple.org). On March 16, the congregation announced the launch of Sinai Streamed, featuring programming on its YouTube channel.

Programming connecting the spread of the coronavirus with the coming holiday of Passover, including “We’ve Been Here Before: Plagues and the Jewish Response,” with Rabbi Nicole Guzik, will be recorded live and saved on Sinai’s YouTube channel for future access.

“While we may not be able to be together physically, we can still gather virtually as a community for prayer, programming and Jewish learning,” Sinai Temple said in a statement.

Beit T’Shuvah (BTS), which runs a rehabilitation center for recovering substance abusers along with a synagogue, is only holding Shabbat services for BTS residents and select staff until further notice. Like other non-Orthodox communities, it was offering services via livestream at beittshuvah.org/live.

“We will not permit any community members, alumni, family or friends to attend Shabbat services, as well as any other BTS event,” BTS said in a statement.

In the San Fernando Valley, Valley Beth Shalom has begun offering its daily minyan and Shabbat morning services at vbs.org/livestream. Adat Ari El has information about livestreaming services at adatariel.org, and Stephen Wise Temple has transitioned into holding services online only until further notice.

LGBT Congregation Kol Ami will suspend in-person worship as of March 20, and Beth Chayim Chadashim canceled its services last Shabbat, opting instead to stream them online.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple has launched wbtla.org/coronavirus-safety-updates, a webpage with answers to frequently asked questions about the coronavirus and links with additional information. The congregation opened its Shabbat services last weekend only to clergy and the immediate family members of the b’nei mitzvah class, while others viewed the services online at wbtla.org/live.

In response to the closure of the city’s synagogues, a Facebook group, JewishLIVE, has been curating livestream and online events. As of press time, the community had nearly 3,500 members and was accepting submissions for events. n

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