Israel's Coronavirus Lockdown Rules Don't Apply to Many Holiday Worshippers

Contrary to what the religious observant feared, prayers for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be held as usual but in smaller groups

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Outdoor prayers in Jerusalem in early September 2020
Outdoor prayers in Jerusalem in early September 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Despite the three-week lockdown slated to begin Friday, dozens of worshippers will be allowed to pray together indoors during the upcoming Jewish holidays, according to a plan released Sunday night by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Health Ministry.

The plan also permits separate groups of up to 20 people to worship together outdoors. It will apply to all the Jewish holidays during the next three weeks, starting with Rosh Hashanah, which begins Friday evening. Under this plan, stricter criteria apply to synagogues in locations with the highest rate of coronavirus infection, the so-called “red” zones, where group prayer will be limited to separate groups of no more than 10 people.

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The number of separate prayer groups per synagogue in those communities will depend on the number of entrances the building has. Buildings with two entrances, for example, will be permitted six groups worshipping inside, while each additional entrance will enable another two groups.

However, the number of separate groups will also depend on the building’s size, since the rules forbid more than one person for every four square meters. Thus, for instance, a 250 square meter building with six entrances could accommodate 60 worshippers in six groups, but a 70 square meter synagogue with one entrance could accommodate only 10 worshippers, due to space limitations.

In communities with lower COVID-19 rates, groups of up to 25 people will be allowed to worship indoors. Each building will be permitted twice as many separate groups as it has entrances, as long as there is no more than one person per four square meters.

But a report released on Monday by the national coronavirus information center warned that holding the long High Holy Day services inside synagogues with many people present, especially in red cities, would lead to a rise in the incidence of the virus – precisely what the three-week holiday lockdown is meant to prevent.

It cited many studies concluding that the risk of infection in closed spaces is much higher than it is outdoors, as well as new studies indicating the risk increases even more when the closed space is small, crowded or poorly ventilated.

Home quarantine

The Health Ministry will not require Hasidic pilgrims returning from Uman, Ukraine to quarantine in isolation hotels, and will instead allow them to self-isolate at home. According to estimates by the ministry, there are currently about 3,000 pilgrims in Uman, most of them from Israel, who are expected to return after Rosh Hashanah.

In recent weeks, the ministry has considered forcing those returning from the annual pilgrimage to enter mandatory quarantine in special hotels, which required the approval of the Defense Ministry, which is responsible for these hotels.

Meanwhile, some 2,500 Bratslav Hasidic Jews who left Israel are now waiting in Belarus in the hope that the authorities will allow them to enter Ukraine.

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