Some congregations are moving ahead slowly — with caution — while others plan to wait.
Perhaps it’s because pikuach nefesh, the saving of life, is the ultimate Jewish value — overriding all other commandments except the prohibitions against murder, idolatry and sex crimes — that few synagogues and temples in the Detroit area are reopening for services.
And perhaps it’s because Orthodox congregations have not, in general, held services using Zoom or other remote access programs — certainly not on the Sabbath or holidays when they do not use electricity — that they have been the first to restart in-person services.
Michigan’s Orthodox Vaad HaRabonim, or rabbis’ council, issued a letter May 21 providing guidelines congregations can use to safely start minyanim — assemblies of at least 10 — for services, noting that specifics should depend on the size and layout of each synagogue and the age and risk factors of members.
All minyanim, whether indoors or outdoors, must, according to the Vaad’s guidelines, include the maintenance of social distancing and the wearing of masks. Anyone over 65 should not participate without permission from a physician. Services inside homes are not permitted. Each congregation should appoint a monitor to ensure the guidelines are being followed.
With these guidelines in mind, Dovid Ben Nuchim, an Orthodox synagogue in Oak Park, resumed daily services on May 27. Children under 13 are not permitted, and there is no open women’s section. Everyone must wash or sanitize his hands upon entry. Those wanting to participate need to request a spot in a particular minyan and fill out a form agreeing to abide by the guidelines.
Keter Torah, the Sephardic synagogue in West Bloomfield, started holding morning services on Memorial Day weekend. The first Shabbat they had about 15 men; on Shavuot, 19 men and two women attended, said Rabbi Sasson Natan.
The congregation is not allowing children or anyone over age 70 at services. All congregants must wear masks and gloves and sit so there are at least three empty seats between individuals. Windows and doors are kept open in the synagogue to encourage air circulation.
Rabbi Sasson reads the Torah, and anyone honored with an aliyah stands at the back of the bimah so he can see — but not touch — the scroll.
The rabbi sees a benefit unrelated to the coronavirus in the mandate to wear masks. “Now we have a reminder that tells us do not talk in the sanctuary unless it is really necessary,” he said.
Rabbi Yechiel Morris of Young Israel of Southfield says his congregation may try to reopen in mid-June. “The Orthodox Union has suggested waiting 14 days after any reopening date suggested by the governor to see if there’s an uptick (in COVID-19 cases),” he said. “We will wait to see how things play out in Michigan.”
Conservative and Reform congregations are in no hurry to reopen. Most have been doing daily and Shabbat services online, and many see a higher attendance at the virtual minyanim than they experienced in person. Rabbi Aaron Starr of Conservative Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield said their average daily minyan attendance has nearly tripled.
Rabbi Robert Gamer of Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park also said daily minyan attendance has increased. The congregation started doing Sunday through Friday evening services by Zoom in March and added daily morning minyanim in mid-May. The congregation has been live-streaming Shabbat morning services for almost five years, and in mid-May they returned to doing so from the synagogue’s bimah; only the rabbi, Cantor Sam Greenbaum and Torah reader Howard Marcus are present.
At Reform Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township, the clergy and lay leaders are evaluating a number of possibilities, including allowing private events such as b’nai mitzvah starting in August, holding outdoor services on Friday night and having clergy lead Friday night virtual services from the temple, rather than from home. Temple Israel in West Bloomfield’s building is closed to the public but the temple hosts a number of services and educational programs on Zoom, Facebook Live and YouTube.
Starr spoke for many community rabbis when he noted, “We are more than our building …We are the family that truly cares for one another, stands with one another, works with one another and who looks forward to a bright future together.”