Finally returning to Shabbat morning services after a four-month absence “is like oxygen,” said Rabbi Yossi Lipsker of Chabad of the North Shore in Swampscott. Two weeks ago, the Hasidic synagogue eased into a cautious, phased reopening following state guidelines.
With the help of Chabad’s Covid-19 task force, headed by Peter Nathan of Swampscott, Shabbat services are now being held from 11 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. inside of interconnecting tents on the Chabad grounds on Burrill Street. In the second week of the phased reopening last week, 30 people attended services in Swampscott, “which is around the limit we feel comfortable with,” said Lipsker. The main shul building remains closed.
Congregants must fill out a form attesting to their health, RSVP if they plan to attend, and wear a mask for the entire length of the service and while on shul property, according to Chabad’s website, nsjewish.com.
A weekday minyan, usually Thursday, will also be held outdoors on Chabad grounds “for people who have yahrzeit to say Kaddish,” said Lipsker.
Like Chabad of Swampscott, Chabad of Peabody also has a large tent on its grounds for Shabbat and Sunday services.
“People came in the flesh,” said Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman. “There is no Zoom on Shabbat [for the Orthodox], nothing electronic, just in-person.” Last week, Chabad of Peabody’s first in-person Shabbat service since the pandemic shut down synagogues in mid-March drew only eight congregants.
“It’s tricky for people,” Schusterman said, referring to members being hyper-cautious about attending group gatherings.
“Now that we have the tent, we’ll string lights, make it homey, and I’ll try our Wednesday Torah class. There’s room for 50 people to sit while social distancing. Even if it’s set up like a class, there’s still enough room” because the tent is 60 feet x 40 feet. Sunday’s service in the tent was a hybrid of in-person and Zoom, Schusterman added.
At Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, there are no plans for in-person Shabbat services. But on July 14, the Conservative temple began opening for in-person services on Tuesday nights and Thursday mornings while continuing its Zoom options. Its website, shirathayam.org, states that among other guidelines, contact tracing will take place, social distancing applies, and masks must be worn.
On Thursday morning July 23, only Rabbi Michael Ragozin, Cantor Alty Weinreb, and two others attended the service in person, but 14 “regulars” viewed via Zoom, according to 20-year regular, Herb Goldberg.
Shirat Hayam’s daily minyans, conducted in collaboration with Temple Sinai of Marblehead, are held online at 7:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. every weekday.
Other synagogues and temples have no plans to offer in-person services just yet.
Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody said the only in-person event planned is the Tashlich service the second day of Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 19, since the symbolic casting off of sins falls on Shabbat this year.
Services at the Conservative temple are broadcast over Zoom, YouTube, and Facebook, often resulting in “hundreds of clicks” from people tuning in from New Jersey, Oklahoma, and elsewhere to say Kaddish, said Perlman. For a Havdalah service on a Saturday evening, “hundreds of viewers join in.”
Perlman and Associate Rabbi Bernie Horowitz conduct services from their homes while there is a virtual bimah in the background.
For Marblehead’s Temple Emanu-El, there are no plans for indoor services.
“There is no safe way to do it and people aren’t clamoring for it,” said Rabbi David Meyer of the Reform congregation.
The only planned gathering as of now is an Aug. 7 outdoor service, according to the temple’s online calendar.
Meanwhile, attendance at several synagogues – because of Zoom – has been waxing rather than waning.
“Since COVID, attendance has been very strong in the morning and evening for weekday minyans,” said Rabbi Ragozin of Shirat Hayam. “There’s a sense of camaraderie and togetherness with people saying Kaddish.”
Brian Cohen has hardly missed a minyan on Zoom since March, whereas he used to attend Shirat Hayam services only on Shabbat. He sang the praises of Zoom.
“There’s no traffic. You can do it on a phone while driving to work. We are all learning. You can turn it off while multitasking and you are still counted for the minyan,” said Cohen. “I get outside of the bubble of my home, have contact with others, perform a mitzvah by making a minyan. It’s incredibly fulfilling to me.”