The Michigan Board of Rabbis has been discussing “best practices,” according to current Board President Daniel A. Schwartz of Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield.
Synagogues locally and across the country, are challenged as they plan High Holiday services this year — normally a time when family and friends, clergy and congregants pray and socialize together.
Until the recent spread of the more contagious Delta COVID variant, caseloads had declined considerably due to vaccination. However, the new variant is causing growing concern, even though the resulting illness is usually less severe among vaccinated individuals.
“This is definitely a challenging time to get together for any reason,” says Robert A. Rich, executive director at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.
The Michigan Board of Rabbis has been discussing “best practices,” according to current Board President Daniel A. Schwartz of Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield. He says that most local synagogues have task forces to establish protocols for their congregations. Often these groups include physicians who are synagogue members.
Executive directors of about 14 local congregations, who meet regularly, also have devoted attention to keeping High Holiday services safe, says Alan Yost, executive director of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. “Our foremost priority is the health and welfare of members,” Yost says.
Congregations have sought input from their members, including surveys about their preferences for the High Holidays. At Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park, “There was a great response including a number of folks who are being very cautious,” says Michael Patterson, interim executive director.
Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park found that three-quarters of members wanted in-person services, based on a survey, says Rabbi Robert Gamer.
So, most temples and synagogues are being cautious as well as creative — trying to maintain High Holiday traditions while keeping congregants safe as the situation evolves.
To reduce the risk of transmission, many congregations are requiring masks, especially indoors and for the unvaccinated; limiting indoor services to adults and teens; and conducting family services outside. Some congregations are limiting indoor services to those who are vaccinated, although verification of vaccination is not required.
Choice of Seating
Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield will open the wall between the sanctuary and the social hall and offer two seating options — one in the sanctuary with regular seating and the other in the social hall where participants will be socially distanced. Masks will be required in both areas.
At Shaarey Zedek, ventilation has been enhanced in the main sanctuary and the social halls have been opened up. The number of individuals on the bimah will be limited, according to Rich.
Children under the age of 13 are not eligible currently for vaccination, which is one reason for special precautions. Outdoor services are being held in adjacent tents or pavilions (such as at Shaarey Zedek, Temple Beth El and Temple Israel) or in public parks (planned by such congregations as B’nai Moshe, Shir Shalom and the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue). Parks are especially popular for family and children’s services as they provide ample room for distancing.
Livestreamed services are another way to provide safe access. Most local Reform and Conservative congregations are providing this option to members and others.
In some congregations, livestreaming is achieved through a stationary camera operated by volunteers from the congregation or a single audio-visual technician. Other congregations are hiring outside professionals to handle High Holidays services online. Temple Beth El has used Flow Video, a local company, to direct and produce high-quality video streamed services for more than a year.
Shaarey Zedek will use a professional producer and director for High Holiday services this year, says Rich. The cost of equipment rental or purchase, staff training and outside professionals is considerable.
However, the use of electronic and computer technology on Shabbos and holidays is prohibited for Orthodox Jews, so online services are not an option. In a letter to Young Israel of Oak Park congregants, Rabbi Shaya Katz “strongly encourages mask-wearing in shul” as a “responsibility toward the community.”
Bais Chabad Torah Center in West Bloomfield plans to hold indoor and outdoor services, the latter under a tent, as they have been doing all year for Shabbos.
Those planning to attend services this year should be aware that “everything is subject to change,” says Yost. Adat Shalom, like other congregations, keeps track of health data and guidance from the State of Michigan, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Oakland County Health Department.
While more members of the Jewish community will worship together this year, it will not be a complete return to normalcy.