Religious worshipers returned to synagogues, mosques and churches for the first time in almost two months Wednesday morning, as houses of prayer across the country reopened under new coronavirus guidelines.
Israel decided Tuesday night to reopen places of worship, which were major vectors of coronavirus infection, amid mounting pressure. According to the decision, houses of worship are able to operate at 50 percent capacity with worshipers keeping at least 2 meters’ distance from one another and wearing masks.
Each religious establishment needs to appoint an official responsible for enforcing coronavirus regulations and ensure hygiene rules are observed.
“Halleluyah!” tweeted former MK Yehudah Glick, a longtime campaigner for Jewish prayer rights at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, alongside a selfie from his synagogue.
Back to Synagogue
— yehudah glick (@YehudahGlick) May 20, 2020
“1.5 million worshipers have awaited this moment of return to places of worship and connection to God,” said Rabbi Shmuel Slotki.
“However, now more than ever, it is important to carefully adhere to Health Ministry guidelines,” he added. “A synagogue that isn’t capable of following those instructions must not reopen.”
גבאי בית כנסת שירת 'נפתלי' אלעד פותח את בית הכנסת הבוקר pic.twitter.com/IqPYepbKiy
— עקיבא ווייס Akiva Weisz (@AkivaWeisz) May 20, 2020
However, ultra-Orthodox medical consultant Shimon Ragubi warned that the return could endanger lives.
“There are three factors that increase the risk of the virus spreading: large gatherings, staying in a closed space and staying in groups for long periods of time,” he said. “Synagogues have all three characteristics together and the danger is great.”
Cautioning of a second wave of infections, Ragubi urged “measured, careful steps.”
Meanwhile, the Orthodox organization that runs the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, where just 300 people are currently allowed to pray at the same time due to social distancing rules, announced that who is allowed to enter during next week’s Shavuot festival will be determined in a raffle.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation invited the public to register for the raffle on its website by Saturday night, May 23. The lists of winners is scheduled to be published Sunday at 7 p.m., with 24 hours given to collect the permits.
The decision to reopen houses of worship 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. 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.
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 had expressed anger over having to continue praying outside, especially during this week’s heat wave, arguing that regulations were being selectively enforced.