U.S. Jewish Institutions Not Rushing to Reopen, Despite White House Pressure

Although a few states are encouraging houses of worship to reopen their doors, many synagogues are preferring to bide their time and see what happens next

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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A Jewish man reading literature outside a shul, closed due to the coronavirus, in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City, March 18, 2020.
A Jewish man reading literature outside a shul, closed due to the coronavirus, in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, March 18, 2020.Credit: ANDREW KELLY/ REUTERS
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – Jewish institutions and organizations across the United States are taking a cautious approach as they ponder the possibility of reopening and renewing their activities, even as the White House and certain state governors are pushing more aggressively to renew economic activity.

The Jewish community’s wider approach was on display on Friday in Des Moines, Iowa, during a visit to the city by Vice President Mike Pence. One of the people Pence met during the visit was Rabbi David Kaufman, who leads the local Reform community of B’nai Jeshurun.

Kaufman explained why his community – like so many other Jewish communities all over the country – was in no rush to reopen.

“We are in a position of uniformly believing that it’s too early to return to personal worship,” Kaufman said, speaking with a mask on his face, unlike Pence. (The visit took place after it was reported on Friday that Pence’s press secretary, Katie Miller, had tested positive for the coronavirus.) “It’s inadvisable at the moment, especially with rising case counts,” Kaufman said, referring to the rising number of new cases in Iowa.

Synagogues all over the United States have been shuttered for two months or more because of the coronavirus. Hundreds of shuls and other Jewish institutions have been holding activities online.

Kaufman told Pence that many of the people in his synagogue belong to “the vulnerable population” most in danger because of the virus – people in their seventies or older. He added that “we are people who like to hug, we like to eat together,” and that it would be “awkward” to reopen the synagogue as long as these communal activities and others are forbidden.

Several U.S. states, including Georgia and Texas, have already allowed houses of worship to reopen under certain guidelines, but Jewish communities in those states have not returned to public prayer so far.

A group of rabbis in Texas released a public letter last month expressing the view that “it is premature to reopen,” despite the local government’s decision to allow houses of worship to operate.

The rabbis also wrote that “the value of pikuach nefesh” – that the duty of preserving life overrides almost anything else – is at the heart of their decision.

In the Washington area, no local synagogues or Jewish institutions have returned to normal activity, or are even planning such a move in the immediate future. In New York, which has suffered severely from the coronavirus, no synagogues have renewed services so far.

An official at a major Jewish organization told Haaretz that the question of reopening is not only health-related but also a financial one.

“Some organizations will want to do it sooner – basically once the government indicates it’s safe – because they’re losing lots of money and their very existence is in peril,” the official said. “Others will want to take the opposite approach: wait and see, [and] not waste precious resources at a time of so much uncertainty.”

Questions remain regarding Jewish education instructions, particularly schools and summer camps. The Reform movement announced at the end of April that its camps will remain closed this summer. Jewish day schools across the country have all moved to distance learning since mid-to-late March, but most are still hopeful that in-class learning will be resumed by the start of the school year in the fall.

“Anyone who decides to reopen soon is also taking a big risk, because [if] you somehow get people in your community infected, that could cause much greater damage in the long run, more than another two months of doing everything by Zoom,” the official added.

Also on Friday, the Orthodox Union, an umbrella organization representing Orthodox communities across the United States, released its own guidelines for how and when to return to public prayer. The bottom line of the document is that synagogues should not rush or hurry to resume activities, and should be more cautious than state governments in deciding when the right time to go back to business is.

“We must be clear, the COVID-19 crisis is far from over,” the Orthodox Union document states. It includes 13 guidelines for Orthodox communities as they consider the possibility of reopening, the first of which is: “We are not yet ready to open.”

The document also states that “reopening will be gradual, not a single event,” and that “we will return slowly, in smaller groups, for shorter times, perhaps less frequently and certainly with social distancing and masks.” One change the document highlights is seating arrangements to allow distancing between congregants, as well as a requirement that synagogues disinfect and ensure airflow in prayer spaces.

Last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top expert on infectious diseases, encouraged a similar approach in a conference call with Orthodox community leaders.

Fauci said that reopening will need to be gradual, and that perhaps there could be prayer services by the time the High Holy Days arrive in the fall – but even then, social distancing and other precautions will be required.

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