OU Lays Out Guidelines for Reopening U.S. Shuls, but No End in Sight for New York

Former president of synagogue in New Rochelle, an initial U.S. epicenter for the coronavirus, says people are missing the physical sense of community ‘tremendously,’ but a rush to reopen shuls must be avoided

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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A man stopping to read announcements posted on the doors of Congregation Divrei Yoel in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The synagogue remains closed due to the coronavirus.
A man stopping to read announcements posted on the doors of Congregation Divrei Yoel in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The synagogue remains closed due to the coronCredit: Mark Lennihan,AP
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

As some U.S. states have begun reopening, Jewish communities have started laying out plans for the day when the coronavirus lockdown is lifted. The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America issued a letter Friday detailing the “principles that should guide the decisions and planning of synagogues and communities” when it comes to eventually reopening.

The document stresses that it “does not imply that any reopening should be done at this point,” and that the resumption of communal prayer and other communal activities should not be considered until at least two weeks after local governments have allowed public gatherings and not seen an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

Any reopening, the letter says, should take under consideration that “every community is unique,” and warns rabbis and community leaders against comparing their communities to others when making decisions.

“The relaxation of restrictions in Israel has no bearing upon New Jersey, just as the decrease in new hospital admissions in New York can occur simultaneously with a rise in Maryland,” it states.

Resuming activity in synagogues, the signatories say, will have to happen “slowly, in smaller groups, for shorter times, perhaps less frequently, and certainly with social distancing and masks.”

Practically, seating should be “eliminated or marked off, such that each open seat will have eight feet of space surrounding it”; entry and exit should be managed to avoid convergence; public davening should be “as short as appropriate,” curtailing parts of the rituals; consistent cleanings and disinfection should be planned; and shul must “ensure that all Davening spaces are well ventilated by windows or HVAC systems.”

In addition, synagogues are asked to discourage or forbid attendance for congregants over 65, or those with chronic medical conditions.

People who have had the coronavirus and tested positive for antibodies should still be considered susceptible to infection until more definitive information is available on whether this means they are immune to COVID-19.

“For some time we will not be able to hold a public Kiddush or Shalosh Seudos, nor attend anything resembling a typical wedding, Bar Mitzvah or funeral,” the document says, also encouraging rabbis and community leaders to communicate policies with “the proper blend of understanding and firmness.”

'Personal assessment'

New Rochelle resident Stanley Raskas, who is also the former president of the Young Israel of New Rochelle synagogue, told Haaretz that he trusts the community to continue following instructions when the time for reopening comes.

Members of Joint Task Force 2 arriving to sanitize and disinfect the Young Israel of New Rochelle synagogue during the coronavirus outbreak in New Rochelle, New York, March 23, 2020.
Members of Joint Task Force 2 arriving to sanitize and disinfect the Young Israel of New Rochelle synagogue during the coronavirus outbreak in New Rochelle, New York, March 23, 2020.Credit: ANDREW KELLY/REUTERS

“Our membership is intelligent and concerned, and any opening that takes place will have to be an opening that the medical experts think is safe for our congregation,” he said. “Everything is on the table.”

New Rochelle, a New York City suburb and home to a large Jewish community, was at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak at the beginning of March, after a local resident became the second person in New York state to be diagnosed with the COVID-19 disease.

Days later, authorities had established a containment zone around the Young Israel synagogue, with most of the Jewish community forced into self-quarantine in their homes. Public spaces, schools and institutions were ordered closed until further notice.

Two months later, the community is getting back on its feet while still under the mandated statewide lockdown. One member of the Young Israel community, a doctor, recently died of COVID-19, according to Raskas.

Although many of the synagogue’s activities have switched to Zoom videoconferencing, Raskas said people miss the physical sense of community “tremendously.”

“People who are regular minyan people [miss it], just as other people feel the disruption of not having school and work,” he said. “Not having minyan for people who attend daily minyan is disruptive, and you accept it – but that doesn’t mean you can do it.”

Nevertheless, Raskas believes that going back to synagogue will be “a personal assessment that everybody is going to make.”

“Initially, I’m sure – as the English expression goes – people are going to be gun-shy; people are going to be afraid to jump into it right away,” he said. “But eventually, I guess, people will acclimate or, God forbid, things will get worse and we’ll get clamped down again.”

In their statement Friday, the OU and Rabbinical Council of America wrote: “We must be clear: the COVID-19 crisis is far from over. We must proceed with caution, recognizing the immense gravity of the decisions we are making and their impact on the lives of our community members and fellow citizens.”

Thirty-five US states have either partially reopened or are set to reopen their economies soon, despite health experts warning that this could cause a surge in COVID-19 cases. New York and New Jersey, homes to America’s largest Jewish communities, are among the 15 states still with shelter-in-place orders.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has placed the state “on pause” since mid-March. The order is set to expire this week, but he said the restrictions will only be lifted for upstate New York construction and manufacturing, even though the hospitalization rate has been slowing.

“In downstate, I don’t believe those numbers are going to change dramatically enough to make a difference in the next few days,” Cuomo said during his briefing on Friday.

“I get the emotion,” the governor added. “Everybody would like to see everything reopen tomorrow.”

Raskas noted that “New York City is so far away from reopening – and it’s terrible, it’s horrible. We don’t feel we have the same problems up here, but if [Gov. Cuomo] throws us in the same boat, we don’t have a choice,” he said. New Rochelle is in Westchester County, about a half-hour drive north of Manhattan.

“This was a community that was actually close to being depressed at the number of people we had in the hospital and how many families were struck by this,” Raskas continued. “We are feeling somewhat better knowing that almost all the people who were in the intensive care unit are on their way to recovery.

“I think the part that people are feeling better about is that they are not as fearful for themselves, because they know the greatest danger seems to have lessened to our community. But along with everybody else, we are suffering by not having our regular institutions – although being in a suburb is a heck of a lot easier than being stuck in New York City at a time like this.”

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