After Months of Enforced Distancing, Worshipers Return to Jerusalem's Synagogues

Despite the government green light, it looks as though the return to routine prayer, at least in some of the synagogues, will happen gradually

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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A synagogue in Nachlaot neighborhood in Jerusalem, on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.
A synagogue in Nachlaot neighborhood in Jerusalem, on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.Credit: Ohad Ziegenberg
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

Anyone entering the Shtiblach Katamon synagogue on Hahish Street in Jerusalem gets a strange feeling. The dust on the benches is heartbreaking. The clocks on the walls, which are an hour behind because there was nobody to switch them to summer time, added to the depressing atmosphere.

These signs represent the story of hundreds of thousands of observant Jews during the period of the coronavirus pandemic: distancing from a center of everyday life, the synagogue, which is in effect their home.

A synagogue in Nachlaot neighborhood in Jerusalem, on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.
A synagogue in Nachlaot neighborhood in Jerusalem, on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.Credit: Ohad Ziegenberg

After almost two months, on Tuesday night the government approved a return to prayer in the synagogues, subject to a series of directives, including wearing masks and maintaining a distance between worshipers. In spite of the government approval, it looks as though the return to the routine of prayer, at least in some of the synagogues, will happen gradually.

For example, in the Shtiblach Katamon, an energetic Hasidic worshiper tried to gather a minyan (a prayer group of at least 10 people) in one of the inside rooms. He collected a few worshipers who skipped the minyanim in the synagogue yard and entered the building, but one of them said that “it’s all dust” and retraced his steps. Later, he too was instructed by the gabaim (prayer organizers): Praying indoors is still forbidden.

In the Moussaieff Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Bukharan neighborhood, one of the oldest synagogues in Israel, the signs of soot at the sides of the iron gate are the only evidence of what took place in recent months. At the height of the coronavirus crisis, after the worshipers violated Health Ministry directives and continued to pray in the synagogue, the police arrived and had to weld the entrance door shut. Now it’s wide open once again.

This morning, too, some of the worshipers at the site are still upset by the prohibitions forced on them because of the pandemic. “Believe me, we’re a Land of Chelm,” said one of them, alluding to a mythical Jewish village populated by fools. “When prayer was forbidden the situation was much more dangerous, because people prayed in minyanim in homes, in all kinds of stores and crowded places. I myself prayed in such places. They shouldn’t have banned prayer.”

He said that the neighbors in the synagogue belonging to the Satmar Hasidic set continued to pray throughout the period of the pandemic. “There everything is in order now, the air conditioners work and everything is clean,” he said. “I was there earlier, a pleasure. Here we’re starting only now to do maintenance work.” Another worshiper sitting next to him disagreed: “The government did the right thing by banning prayers, the fact that you violated the law is your problem.”

There were few worshipers in the synagogue in the morning hours. At the Shaharit morning prayer, in the synagogue’s open complex, only some of the worshipers were wearing masks. “There’s no real possibility of enforcing it,” explained one of them. “This isn’t a synagogue where everyone knows everyone else. Thousands of people from all the different communities come here in the course of the day. In small neighborhood synagogues it can be managed much better.” And in fact, in several small synagogues in the Nahlaot neighborhood, for example, the rules were observed strictly. Almost all the worshipers wore masks and kept their distance from one another.

In the Chabad synagogue on Yitzhak Sadeh Street, during the coronavirus period the worshipers would assemble in the plaza adjacent to the building. Today, for the first time since late March, they went back inside. Several of them stayed for the post-prayer Torah lesson and couldn’t hide the smiles that lit up their faces. Some of the pleasure may have derived from the air conditioner than cooled the room, a pleasant upgrade compared to continuing the prayers outside, due to Israel’s present heat wave.

Not far from there, in another Chabad synagogue on Kanaei Hagalil Street, a building that up until a few years ago was a clothing store called Protection, whose entry sign promised “to squeeze the prices,” the local rabbi also smiled. When asked how he felt upon returning to the synagogue after a long period of absence, he replied with one word: “Redemption.” Immediately afterwards he added, “But we don’t want this redemption, we want complete redemption. We didn’t spend the past months praying outdoors in order to return to the same place. We want Messiah the King.”