As pressure from faithful mounts, government plans to reopen synagogues

With beaches packed and schools reopening, many have questioned the continued closure of houses of worship, which served as major vector for spread of COVID-19

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

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

Under pressure from Orthodox groups and the Chief Rabbinate, senior government officials met on Sunday to discuss the reopening of the country’s synagogues, which were shuttered in late March in a bid to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

According to a statement released on Sunday afternoon by the office of Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, representatives of the health and interior ministries and the National Security Council met and drafted a plan that they expect will soon receive cabinet approval.

While the statement did not go into full detail regarding how the government plans on handling the issue, it did state that synagogues would only reopen on condition that only regular worshipers attend and that they stay physically apart during services.

Worshipers will be required to wear masks the entire time they are in the synagogue and bring their own prayer books and other religious items from home. Every synagogue will be required to appoint a “coronavirus sexton” in charge of enforcing social distancing rules.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews pray at the grave of Benaiah Ben Jehoiada between Safed and Meron in northern Israel on April 20, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Prior to the announcement, a spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate confirmed that the matter was being seriously discussed among top officials, telling The Times of Israel that chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef had appealed to public health authorities to set guidelines to enable the safe resumption of public prayer.

“Today there is a meeting in the Health Ministry. The chief rabbis have requested the reopening of all the synagogues, but of course this will done be according to the guidelines of the Health Ministry,” said spokesman Kobi Alter.

“This is a complex topic but we hope that today there will be an answer.”

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

Interior Ministry Aryeh Deri in an interview with the ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar HaShabbat broadcast on May 9, 2020. (Screenshot/Kikar HaShabbat)

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.

“Malls are open, parks are open, schools, public transportation, demonstrations. The beaches already have a [reopening] date. Only the synagogues have been forgotten,” Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu complained on Facebook on Friday.

Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu (left) at a special prayer service calling for the end of the coronavirus epidemic at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, February 16, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Someone needs to wake up. Synagogues cannot be the last in line.”

The Association of Community Rabbis, a right-wing rabbinic organization affiliated with Eliyahu, has also called for the reopening of synagogues, writing to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to request that he allow the resumption of prayers “immediately.”

Currently, public prayer is only allowed outside in groups of up to 50 people, all of whom must wear masks and keep a distance of two meters from one another.

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

“I don’t see [synagogue closures] as discriminatory because malls have constant movement of people and small stores like barber shops rarely have ten people inside,” said David Stern, a rabbi in Jerusalem’s Old City.

“What is discriminatory is to break up gatherings in shuls [synagogues] but not to break up beach-goers or cafe eaters when there are far more than ten. I suspect either just after or before [the upcoming] Shavuot [holiday] they’ll allow shuls. It’s getting really hard to daven [pray] outside because of the heat.”

Beaches were packed on Saturday, with little enforcement of social distancing regulations. This came only days after hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men were arrested for breaking into a sacred compound at Mount Meron in northern Israel, defying police orders limiting entry to the site due to coronavirus fears and prompting clashes with security forces.

Israelis enjoy the beach in Tel Aviv, as temperatures rise to 40 degrees in some parts of the country, May 16, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“While there are good reasons for it, the fact is that some of the outdoor minyanim are also getting crowded,” said Rabbi Dovid Lewin, who heads a small Kollel/synagogue in the central city of Beit Shemesh.

“I am seeing people without masks because it’s hard to breathe in the heat as opposed to inside with the air conditioner running. I think the shuls should be able to open with strict guidelines of social distancing [and] masks,” he said, adding that it would be easier to observe social distancing in an organized synagogue with a sexton to enforce the rules.

Dr. Yizhar Hess, the executive director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, said on Sunday that he was “eagerly awaiting the Ministry of Health’s decision to allow the re-opening of synagogues,” calling the fact that synagogues have not been allowed to resume services “very unfortunate.”

Acknowledging that there were serious health concerns, he nevertheless said that he hoped that “within a few days, our synagogues will also be able to open – subject to the Ministry of Health’s instructions.”

Others have advocated a more cautious approach.

“I think that in many respects the religious leadership has to be ahead of the curve here and we have to differentiate between opening synagogues and having public prayer,” said Seth Farber, who heads the Itim organization, which helps Israelis navigate the country’s religious bureaucracy, and serves as the rabbi of the Kehilat Netivot synagogue in Raanana.

Farber argued that “the benefit of keeping synagogues open is far outweighed by the potential cost of opening them, which is the sanctity of life.”

“Synagogues are supposed to fill a role in terms of sanctifying God’s name and the greater sanctification of God’s name today is saving lives so if even one life can be saved by keeping synagogues closed another week or two or three, then that’s certainly what we should be doing,” he said.

Rabbi David Stav, co-founder and chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical organization. (Flash 90, File)

Rabbi David Stav, the chairman of Tzohar, an organization that provides an Orthodox alternative to the rabbinate, told The Times of Israel that he had written to the prime minister to request clarity on the issue of synagogues reopening.

He said he had demanded not that the government allow synagogues to resume operation — although he wants that to happen — but that it open a dialogue with the religious community.

Prof. Hagai Levine, an epidemiologist at the Hebrew University and head of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians, while not endorsing a particular position on the matter, also called for more clarity regarding synagogues.

“We have evidence that synagogues and other religious gatherings are a major mode of spread,” he told The Times of Israel, noting that there is more crowding and social mixing at synagogues than in classrooms, in which children stick together in defined groups.

However, Levine added, “decisions need to be professional and transparent,” and recommended that authorities keep the lines of communication open in order to “work together with communities.”

They “can make this decision or the other but the process is important,” he said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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