Chief rabbi demands immediate reopening of synagogues, says closure ‘baffling’

David Lau sends letter to Netanyahu decrying fact that malls, beaches and restaurants are returning to normal, but not places of worship

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray outside a closed yeshiva in Bnei Brak on March 26, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray outside a closed yeshiva in Bnei Brak on March 26, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Chief Rabbi David Lau on Tuesday urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to order the immediate reopening of synagogues, decrying the continued closure as other areas of public life gradually return to normal.

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 has 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.

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

“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.

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

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, the Interior Ministry has in recent days prepared an outline for reopening synagogues with certain restrictions, which will reportedly go up for a cabinet vote soon.

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.

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)

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.

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 week’s heat wave, arguing that regulations are being selectively enforced.

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