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Lax observance: In reopened Israeli synagogues, hazy virus rules stoke anxiety

Critics worry that distancing will be hard to maintain in houses of worship, which were a major vector of virus transmission during the beginning of the pandemic

Ultra-Orthodox men wearing masks pray at the Western Wall on May 21, 2020. (Sam Sokol)
Ultra-Orthodox men wearing masks pray at the Western Wall on May 21, 2020. (Sam Sokol)

On Thursday morning a small group of men gathered at the Nahalat Shiv’a Synagogue in downtown Jerusalem to hold one of their first prayer services in nearly two months.

Sitting with two meters (6.5 feet) between them, the worshipers appeared to be attempting to observe the social distancing rules set down by the Health Ministry — which permitted houses of worship to reopen their doors starting on Wednesday following sustained public pressure — although only some of them wore masks.

Synagogues and yeshivas, which were shuttered in late March, served as major vectors for the transmission of the coronavirus during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and when the government finally decided to let them resume operations it was with numerous caveats.

Synagogues are now limited to a maximum of 50 attendees, all of whom are required to wear masks, maintain a two-meter distance from each other and bring prayer books from home. Moreover, they are required to appoint a “coronavirus sexton” in charge of enforcing social distancing rules.

Congregants pray at the Nahalat Shiv’a synagogue in Jerusalem on May 21, 2020. (Sam Sokol)

However, some in the Orthodox community have expressed concerns that such restrictions are unrealistic and that their widespread adoption will face significant challenges.

“I have a lot criticisms abut the way synagogues were opened,” Rabbi David Stav, the chairman of Tzohar, an organization that provides an Orthodox alternative to the rabbinate, told The Times of Israel.

Stav believes that the decision to reopen gave synagogues insufficient time to adequately adjust to the new way of doing things and quipped that the ministry’s guidelines “seem to be written by people who were never in a synagogue and don’t know how synagogues work.”

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

The new rules do not distinguish between larger synagogues and smaller ones and were unclear regarding how to implement social distancing, he said, calling them “impossible to implement.”

In his own community in the central Israeli town of Shoham, many people are attempting to follow the rules, but he believes that within a few days, they will become lax and observance will slack off.

During parts of the service like Birkat Kohanim, in which members of the priestly class stand together to bless the congregation, social distancing is incredibly difficult and it will be nearly impossible to keep people from gathering after prayers to socialize, he said.

“The impression that people get from the way the authorities are running this process of coming back to synagogue gives them a kind of feeling that its not really serious because if it was serious it would have been treated differently,” he said.

People crowding closely together at a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Meah Shearim neighborhood on May 21, 2020. (Sam Sokol)

The coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, is spread via droplet transmission, a real problem in synagogues where people pray and sing in a confined space.

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 46.9 percent of Israelis up to that point 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.

At the Ohel Rachel synagogue in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, known as the home of the extreme fringe of Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy, members of the Satmar Hasidic sect stood shoulder to shoulder, their bodies draped in prayer shawls as they rocked back and forth in prayer.

Down the hall, two other prayer services were also in full swing, the congregants crowded into small rooms without masks or even a token attempt at social distancing.

Ultra-Orthodox men stay socially distant in a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Meah Shearim neighborhood on May 21, 2020. (Sam Sokol)

In two other nearby synagogues, one of them belonging to the Breslov Hasidic sect, people stayed further apart but there were no masks in evidence.

In Beit Shemesh, Hasidic resident Mordechai Linhart complained that in one synagogue, “the whole crowd wore masks, they also didn’t keep social distancing and sat next to one another as normal” while in another he saw people praying “without masks and social distancing.”

The problem, he theorized, was the government’s inconsistent messaging and “continued change of rules and regulations,” which has left many unsure of what they are supposed to do.

Other synagogues in the city, however, have taken a different tack, with several ultra-Orthodox congregations sending messages to members insisting that attendance be prearranged in order to keep numbers down and placing a firm emphasis on social distancing.

“Only 39 people will be allowed in the men’s section and six in the women’s section,” an official at one local Chabad synagogue told its members in a WhatsApp message. “Please tell me ASAP which prayer services you will be attending so you can reserve your place. We will lock the door once the limit is reached.”

Men wearing masks pray in Jerusalem’s Hurva Synagogue on May 21, 2020. (Sam Sokol)

In Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood, whose residents are primarily affiliated with the non-Hasidic “Lithuanian” branch of ultra-Orthodoxy, the crowds that usually throng synagogues appeared to be absent.

“If there were minyanim, they were being held discretely,” said resident William Kolbrenner, a professor of English Literature at Bar-Ilan University, using the Hebrew term for a 10-man prayer quorums.

In fact, he added, “some of the outdoor minyanim that I habitually see were open for business as usual,” indicating that not everyone was ready to return to synagogue.

Men pray at Wilson’s Arch, adjacent to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, on May 21, 2020. (Sam Sokol)

Prior to Wednesday, many Orthodox Jews participated in sidewalk minyanim sanctioned by the government, although the recent heat wave had dampened the enthusiasm for outdoor prayer.

In a joint letter published on Thursday, rabbis Chaim Kanievsky and Gershon Edelstein, the two most influential leaders of Lithuanian ultra-Orthodoxy, endorsed the ministry’s guidelines, stating that there was “still a danger of gathering people without fences and precautions.”

It was “imperative” that every synagogue appoint someone to enforce the ministry’s rules, the pair declared.

One community that is still praying outdoors, at least for the time being, is the national-religious Kehillat Darchei Tzion in Modiin.

Because members of the congregation usually pray in a school instead of their own dedicated building, the local municipality informed them that they could not yet resume their services indoors, said synagogue co-chair Simon Levy.

As The Western Wall has been split into multiple small prayer areas to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among worshippers. May 21, 2020. (Sam Sokol)

He said that in the meantime the community would continue to pray outside, maintaining social distancing and limiting the number of participants.

He said that while there is a “minority taking a laissez-faire approach,” he believes that the majority of people “are taking the sensible approach and wearing masks.”

On Thursday morning in Jerusalem’s Old City, the Chabad-Lubavitch Tzemach-Tzedek synagogue appeared to be closed while a mixed crowd of national-religious and ultra-Orthodox worshipers, nearly all of them wearing masks, gathered for morning prayers at the recently rebuilt Hurva synagogue.

Men praying at the Western Wall on May 21, 2020. (Sam Sokol)

A second minyan took place just outside the synagogue. Both appeared to obey social distancing guidelines.

A few minutes walk away at the Western Wall, wooden and fabric walls split the plaza into a series of small prayer areas intended to divide visitors into small, separated groups.

Despite the the Health Ministry’s decision to suspend mask wearing outdoors during the heat wave, many of those praying at the Jewish holy site kept their mouths covered.

Inside Wilson’s Arch, a covered area adjacent to the men’s side of the wall, David Uri Ben Carmel, a resident of the northern town of Zichron Yaakov, said that while he enjoyed the quiet at the usually noisy site, he was “looking forward to the usual tumult” to resume.

Asked for his impression of how synagogues were handling the new rules, ultra-Orthodox journalist Eli Shlezinger, until recently a correspondent for the Behadrei Haredim news site, said that while not all synagogues were obeying, it was important to “look at all of Israel society.”

Hasidim wearing masks at the Western Wall on May 21, 2020. (Sam Sokol)

Noting the large crowds at Tel Aviv’s beaches, where “there were almost no people with masks,” he said that while some ultra-Orthodox communities were slow to begin social distancing, they were now “much more” careful than non-Haredim.

Obeying the rules could be challenging in small synagogues without a lot of room, said Prof. Yehuda Neumark, director of the Hebrew University-Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine.

“There is a serious responsibility on the part of rabbis and the management of synagogues to not be too quick to open up,” he said, calling on people to “take things slowly and be very cautious.”

Asked if he believed that synagogues would be able to maintain a high level of social distancing for an extended period of time, he replied that he had his doubts, calling such an effort “extremely difficult.”

“I fear that synagogues will once again become a major source of infections for the country,” he said.

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