U.S. Synagogues Unimpressed by Trump's Pressure to Reopen

Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, America's Jewish institutions unmoved by Trump's call for houses of worship to resume normal activities after the coronavirus lockdown: 'The general attitude is caution and responsibility'

Amir Tibon
Washington
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Rodef Shalom Rabbi Aaron Bisno, top center, delivers his sermon with soloist Molly May, left, and Rabbi Sharyn Henry in attendance, during an Erev Shabbot service that is being streamed live on Facebook, Friday, March 20, 2020.
Rodef Shalom Rabbi Aaron Bisno, top center, delivers his sermon during an Erev Shabbot service that is being streamed live on Facebook from Pittsburgh, PennsylvaniaCredit: Gene J. Puskar,AP
Amir Tibon
Washington

WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump used Memorial Day weekend to attack state governors who have taken measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, by proclaiming that he was ordering them to allow churches and synagogues to reopen and resume normal activities.

Trump’s move garnered headlines and offered White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany a line of attack against journalists who asked questions on the subject. But at least as far as America’s Jewish community is concerned, it seems the president’s provocation didn’t make much of an impression.

Rabbis and community leaders from across the country who spoke with Haaretz in recent days all said they were seeing no change in the pace of how Jewish institutions are planning to reopen their doors. Across the modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform streams, there seems to be a consensus that Jewish institutions should return to physical activities based on their ability to do so safely, and not based on political or economic decisions.

“The general attitude of synagogues in our area, regardless of denomination, is caution and responsibility,” says Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. Halber tells Haaretz, “Our rabbis are not going to rush it because of something coming out of the White House. No one wants to put members of their own community at risk. Of course, people really want to reopen the synagogues and people miss going to shul. But what I’m hearing from rabbis is that safety remains their top priority.”

Steven Rosenberg, chief operating officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, has more than 90 synagogues in his area and says he is “not aware of any of them currently speeding up plans for reopening. People are having discussions about it, and we at the federation are putting together a very detailed plan for how to do it – which we already started working on five weeks ago. But the timeline is based on many considerations, including how the state of Pennsylvania views the situation.”

Rosenberg adds that “right now, Philadelphia is still defined as a ‘red zone’ by the state, meaning that everything is shut down. We hope it will soon move to yellow and eventually green – and we’re preparing for it – but we’re not going to get ahead of the governor on this issue. And even when there will be a move to ‘green,’ I don’t think people will be in a rush to have hundreds of congregants inside the synagogue buildings.”

The Young Israel of New Rochelle Orthodox synagogue is viewed in New Rochelle, New York, on May 26, 2020, as Westchester County begins Phase One of its reopening. The synagogue remains closed.
The Young Israel of New Rochelle Orthodox synagogue is viewed in New Rochelle, New York, on May 26, 2020, as Westchester County begins Phase One of its reopening. The synagogue remains closed. Credit: AFP

Rosenberg says that in conversations his federation is regularly holding with local rabbis, he is sensing “a very thoughtful approach. There is a serious conversation about getting back, but it will take more time before we get there.”

Many questions

Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs says Trump’s attempt to declare houses of worship as “essential” made no difference to his movement, which is the largest Jewish denomination in North America. “We’ve always considered our synagogues to be essential, that’s not news to anyone,” Jacobs says. “We long to return to in-person gathering – because nothing can replace that, not even the best Zoom broadcast. But our movement puts a greater emphasis on the Jewish principle of pikuach nefesh [the preservation of human life above all]. We will continue to look to the medical experts for advice on when it is actually safe to gather in person.”

Jacobs shares with Haaretz some of the many questions a potential reopening has triggered in internal deliberations. “How do we clean the buildings to make sure they’re safe? How many people do we allow inside a room? What measures of social distancing do we insist on? And how do we enforce them?”

He brings up the theoretical scenario of “a bat mitzvah ceremony where all the family gathers, but somebody takes people’s temperatures at the entrance and suddenly grandpa or grandma has a slight fever. Whose role is it to then tell them, ‘Sorry, but you won’t be able to attend your granddaughter’s celebration today’?”

Jacobs says that “what we are hearing from synagogues across our movement is that they’re having their own independent discussions on these subjects, and at the same time many of them want some guidance from the movement. We’re working on something like that, but we also know that, eventually, many will decide what to do based on the situation in their own state, city and neighborhood.”

Rabbi Jill Crimmings of Bet Shalom Reform Congregation in Minnesota told NPR this week that the debate over when and how to reopen has nothing to do with politics. “As rabbis, we do our best to step outside of that political conversation and speak from a space of values,” she explained, adding that the main value taken into consideration in this case is “saving lives.”

‘Surprised’

In Greater Boston, Rabbi Claudia Kreiman of the independent synagogue Temple Beth Zion told a local newspaper this week that despite the fact the Republican governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, is allowing houses of worship to reopen, she wasn’t sure the community was ready for such a step.

U.S. President Donald Trump arriving to call for the reopening of places of worship across the United States, White House, Washington, May 22, 2020.
U.S. President Donald Trump arriving to call for the reopening of places of worship across the United States, White House, Washington, May 22, 2020.Credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS

“Many of us were surprised that houses of worship made it to Phase 1 [of the state’s reopening process],” Kreiman told the Brookline TAB. “We felt it’s not going to be responsible for us to open this early. There is a lot that we need to be thinking about.”

She added: “It’s very hard, because [social distancing] is the opposite of the values that we hold so dear – which is our doors are always open to everyone, and we would never say ‘no’ to someone looking to come in.”

Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, tells Haaretz: “We can choose – as every Jewish denomination and nearly every synagogue in America has – to see state and local directives as a baseline, not a ceiling, for the precautions we take in gathering and protecting all of us, especially the most vulnerable among us.”

Burton says the leaders of most local Orthodox synagogues recently published a joint statement, saying they would wait at least two weeks after the local government gives permission to reopen religious institutions before going ahead and actually reopening.

This two-week wait period is in line with policy guidelines issued earlier this month by the Orthodox Union. The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly offered a similar message in a statement published earlier this month: “Given all of the values, and despite the fact that it continues to challenge the finances of our institutions, in many locations our concern for health and safety should therefore make us among the last to return to physically proximate activity, rather than the first,” it stated.

Rabbinical Assembly Chief Executive Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal says that “‘reopening’ is a complicated term. Our congregations have remained open throughout. This is a question of returning to in-person activities. Congregations may slowly increase these kinds of activities – first, small groups for prayer or life cycle events, with appropriate measures in place (distancing, masks, gloves, etc.), and with others present via Zoom or other streaming technologies.”

One thing is clear from all the different conversations: The timing of when synagogues and Jewish institutions reopen will not be unduly influenced by President Trump.

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