Amid mounting pressure, ministers OK opening of houses of worship from Wednesday

Amid mounting pressure, ministers OK opening of houses of worship from Wednesday

Synagogues, mosques and churches allowed to operate at 50% capacity with worshipers keeping at least 2 meters apart and wearing masks

Jewish men pray while social distancing outside a closed synagogue in the coastal city of Netanya, April 23, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images via JTA)
Jewish men pray while social distancing outside a closed synagogue in the coastal city of Netanya, April 23, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images via JTA)

Israel will on Wednesday reopen houses of worship, which were major vectors of coronavirus infection, but prayer services will still face some restrictions, the Prime Minister’s Office announce Tuesday.

The decision came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a meeting of top officials on the issue amid mounting pressure, as synagogues, mosques and churches remained closed even as other areas of public life gradually returned to normal.

According to the decision, houses of worship will be able to operate at 50 percent capacity with worshipers keeping at least 2 meters distance from one another and wearing masks.

Each religious establishment would need to appoint an official responsible for enforcing coronavirus regulations and ensure hygiene rules were observed, the statement said.

Among those in the meeting with Netanyahu were Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat.

Jewish men pray at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem’s Old City. April 19, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The decision came after the Health Ministry signed off on a plan allowing restaurants, bars and nightclubs to reopen next week, amid growing calls from business owners and some local leaders that they be allowed to reopen.

The ministry plan, which must still be approved by the cabinet, would also allow pools and hotels to open starting May 27, along with extracurricular activities for kids and other types of classes.

Earlier Tuesday, Chief Rabbi David Lau urged Netanyahu to order the immediate reopening of synagogues, saying it was “baffling” they remained closed while everything else was reopening.

Synagogues and yeshivas served as major vectors for the transmission of the coronavirus during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Synagogues were shuttered in late March.

But as the number of new daily cases has dropped to fewer than 30 nationwide, and as beaches, restaurants and pubs were set to reopen by next week — even event halls got a mid-June scheduled opening date — there had been no word from the government about resuming synagogue services.

“The return to normal of shopping centers, restaurants etc., and the lack of answers on synagogues, is baffling to many,” Lau said in a letter sent to Netanyahu.

“Praying with the community is an important part of Jewish life,” he wrote. “During the closure I issued lenient halachic instructions for ways to hold public prayers under the circumstances. The public acted responsibly and acted according to the guidelines.

“From reactions I am receiving, I feel them and understand how painful this is for them,” he continued, adding that worshipers aren’t heard because they don’t have a union representing their interests.

Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau at the Western Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem, July 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Lau asked the premier to issue “clear guidelines” and reopen synagogues “at the earliest convenience.”

Under pressure from Orthodox groups and the Chief Rabbinate, the Interior Ministry in recent days prepared an outline for reopening synagogues with certain restrictions.

According to the plan, synagogues would only open to regular congregants, with an empty seat between every two people. All worshipers would be required to wear face masks throughout the service, all religious garments and objects were to be brought from home and not shared, and each synagogue would appoint a sexton in charge of enforcing the rules.

In late March, the Corona National Information and Knowledge Center, a government body of researchers that serves as an advisory panel to the Health Ministry and the Home Front Command, reported that at the time, 46.9 percent of Israelis had contracted the coronavirus abroad, 4.4% at home and 13.1% at an unknown location.

Of the remaining 35.6% of cases in which the source of the infection was known, nearly a quarter had contracted it at a synagogue.

In recent weeks, Israel has made great strides in containing the virus and the government has begun the gradual process of rebooting the economy and allowing shopping centers, restaurants and schools to return to operations.

Before synagogues were allowed to reopen Wednesday, public prayer was only allowed outside in groups of up to 50 people, all of whom had to wear masks and keep a distance of two meters from one another.

Some in the Orthodox community expressed anger over having to continue praying outside, especially during this week’s heat wave, arguing that regulations are being selectively enforced.

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