Stained glass at Congregation Shaarey Zedek

More congregations are reopening or expanding their number of participants for in-person services but keeping an online presence. Others, however, are choosing to remain virtual.

Last March, when COVID forced us to stop gathering publicly, many synagogues transitioned their services to an online format, where they remain today. One year later, as more people are becoming vaccinated and, for a while, the number of reported cases in Michigan was trending downward, things slowly started opening up. Public schools brought students back into the classrooms, restaurants reopened with capacity limits, and a small number of fans can now attend sporting events. 

Event coordinator and logistic manager seem to be the new roles of rabbis since the pandemic started. Rabbi Yechiel Morris of Young Israel of Southfield (YIS) half-jokingly said he used to spend his spare time working on sermons. Now he devotes his extra time to making sure congregants are safe when they come to synagogue.

After a three-month pause, YIS resumed services last June, offering indoor and outdoor options. Each holiday presents a unique set of challenges for shuls like YIS, depending on the time of year and typical crowd size. Purim, for example, took significant planning, resulting in multiple services to accommodate the number of people who wanted to observe the festive holiday at shul.

More congregations are reopening or expanding their number of participants for in-person services but keeping an online presence. Others, however, are choosing to remain virtual.

A Slow and Safe Return

In January, Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield started allowing up to 15 people in the sanctuary for Shabbat services. Executive Director David Goodman believes they were one of the first congregations to do so without a bar or bat mitzvah during the service. He said that as more congregants are vaccinated and comfortable getting out, there is an increased interest among members in attending services. That’s why congregation leadership decided to increase the number of participants to 35 after Passover.

Beth Ahm sanctuary
Beth Ahm sanctuary

Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield was also one of the first to reopen its doors. It began allowing bar and bat mitzvah families back in the sanctuary last May, with limited capacity, and kept services on Zoom.

In February, the synagogue gave its members the option of returning to worship in person by pre-registering. The process includes a health screen and an agreement to follow health and safety guidelines.

At first, there were limits to the number of in-person worshipers. Now, all members are welcome under strict safety guidelines, but pre-registering is no longer necessary. Congregants, however, are not rushing back. Recently, Shabbat morning in-person attendance was 33. Others participated through Zoom.

Because the synagogue is the largest in terms of space, Shaarey Zedek is in the enviable position of safely welcoming back worshipers without limiting numbers. Pre-COVID, the shul could accommodate up to 4,000 worshipers by opening dividers between the sanctuary and two adjacent social halls.

Detail from Noah’s Ark mosaic at Shir Tikvah
Detail from Noah’s Ark mosaic at Shir Tikvah

“We’ve been working hard for a long time to bring people together safely,” said Robert Rich, executive director of Shaarey Zedek. “If members are comfortable, we welcome them. If not, they can still participate online. This pandemic is still going on. I would not push anyone to come.”

Members of Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park recently received a three-page letter detailing the synagogue’s plans for reopening for in-person Shabbat morning services.

Beginning March 27, up to 36 members could pre-register to attend a Saturday morning service. However, for now, strict guidelines include the requirement that all attendees be fully vaccinated. Children under 13 are not allowed, and those in attendance are asked to avoid conversations and activities that require close face-to-face contact, such as handshakes and hugs. The synagogue will continue offering online services.

Further reading: Virtual for Now

Not everyone plans to bring members back into the sanctuary. B’nai Moshe, Adat Shalom, Temple Kol Ami, Shir Tikvah and T’chiyah are among the congregations that will remain virtual for now. In response to a written request from the Jewish News, congregation leaders outlined their plans. Some statements have been edited for brevity.

Adat Shalom Synagogue: “Adat Shalom has no current plans for a return to a physical presence in the short term. We have held b’nai/b’not mitzvah in our sanctuary on Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh, and the attendance has been limited to family members with an attendance not to exceed 25 individuals. All of our daily, evening and Shabbat services are Zoomed, and we anticipate that will become part of the new normal. Clergy, members of the professional staff and synagogue members will be meeting in the not too distant future to discuss a timetable for a return to a physical presence in the synagogue.”

— Alan Yost, executive director

Congregation B’nai Moshe: “At this point, we are not holding in-person services other than for b’nai mitzvah. Our medical advisory team is considering allowing in-person services only for people who have been fully vaccinated. We are reconvening to discuss this opportunity right after Passover. We anticipate holding in-person services by the end of spring. We will continue to livestream our interactive Zoom service, which has been extremely well received by our membership.”

— Steven Fine, executive director

Congregation Shir Tikvah: “We will remain virtual for a while, but we do have outdoor, in-person services on occasion. For example, we had a Havdalah service March 20. Come the end of April, we will begin allowing for some very small indoor b’nai mitzvah services only (with Zoom as well for additional attendance), should the family want to go that route.”

— Lorelei Berg, executive director

Temple Kol Ami: “Although we are continuously monitoring the health of our community and have a reopening taskforce committee, we have not yet committed to an exact date to have in-person services. We hope as the weather improves, we can provide some outdoor activities and programs and potential indoor gatherings with limited numbers. We remain hopeful and optimistic that things will improve over the next several months while more and more people have access to the vaccine; however, we will remain cautious.”

— Cheryl Chaben Friedman, executive director

Congregation T’chiyah: “T’chiyah is continuing to meet only virtually for the time being. Based on the expected vaccination rollout timelines, our religious services committee feels that we should plan again for virtual High Holiday services, as we implemented this past year. This year, however, we will suggest that vaccinated congregants tune-in together in small groups. We are curious about the possibility of future in-person outdoor gatherings but do not yet have set plans in the works for this. Whatever happens, we’re interested in maintaining the level of accessibility that Zoom-based services provide (especially to homebound, disabled and non-local congregants) by continuing to provide online offerings even once we return to in-person services.”

— Jake Ehrlich, community engagement associate