Citing the Jewish teaching of pikuach nefesh – that saving a life takes precedence over all other religious obligations – synagogue leaders on the North Shore are holding off on reopening their buildings despite receiving the green light from the state.
The state’s much anticipated four-phase reopening plan, announced by Governor Charlie Baker on May 18, allowed houses of worship to reopen immediately with restrictions. But even with the limitations on the number of people allowed to 40 percent of a building’s occupancy and safety standards that require masks, social distancing, and other measures, rabbis told the Journal that it’s too risky to open right now.
“We can’t ensure the safety of those who come and gather in our synagogue to the extent that we are committed to. We are going to wait until it is safe to open,” Rabbi Steven Lewis of Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester said.
“We are not throwing the doors open,” said Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead. “We are proceeding with caution and being intentionally focused on the well-being of the people we want to be able to gather again.”
At Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly, no one is asking to reopen the building right now, Rabbi Alison Adler said. All of the rabbis she’s in contact with are on the same page, said Adler, who also serves on the executive committee of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. The organization issued a widely shared statement on the state’s reopening plan for houses of worship.
“Jewish tradition teaches that the value of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, comes before all else,” the statement said. “Synagogues and Jewish institutions should only physically reopen when they can be assured of the well-being of their members, especially the most vulnerable amongst us.”
This approach is also guiding the decision-making at Congregation Ner Tamid and Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody and Temple Sinai in Marblehead.
Chabad of Peabody also remains closed, concerned with protecting the health of congregants, some who are eager to reopen and others who maintain it’s still not safe.
“I’m somewhere in the middle,” said Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman. His Chabad community is setting up detailed safety protocols for holding small outdoor religious services sometime in the next few weeks.
Nonetheless, the decision to reopen is weighing heavily on Schusterman.
“God forbid, someone would get sick under my watch,” he said.
Ethan Mascoop, a faculty member at the Boston University School of Public Health, led a webinar of health and medical experts for synagogue leaders last week organized by the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts.
“Reopening comes with a responsibility, not only to the congregation but to the public,” said Mascoop. Partnering with local boards of health for contact tracing is among the keys to controlling the spread of the virus before it gets out of control, Mascoop advised. “If not, the harm to the general public can be devastating,” he wrote in a follow-up email.
North Shore rabbis struck a unified chord that their synagogues are indeed “open,” even if the doors remain shut.
“Shirat Hayam [and all synagogues] are not buildings, but communities of people,” Rabbi Michael Ragozin, spiritual leader of the Swampscott congregation, wrote in an email. “We care for each other and pray together. We sing, mourn, raise our children, support our community and dream of the future together.”
Rabbi Adler said the language around being “open” is an ill-fitting concept.
“When we gather together [online] through Zoom, we can look at each others’ faces, we are praying together, supporting each other,” she said.
The emotional challenges of being physically separated are profound when it comes to congregants who are mourning the deaths of family members, said Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez of Temple Sinai. While remote gatherings work well enough for many circumstances, it leaves a stark void in funeral services and Shiva gatherings.
Rabbi Perlman also misses the opportunity to be with people and to harmonize in song. But one congregant who complained at the beginning of the shutdown that the spirituality was missing in the virtual services has done an about face.
“Don’t rush us back,” he implored the rabbi after hearing that houses of worship could reopen.
The rabbis said their virtual religious services and programs are in many cases attracting higher numbers than pre-pandemic, in-person services.
Rabbi Meyer said the bigger question will be how this plays out in the future. “How do we continue to offer that kind of extreme inclusion?”
At Tiferet Shalom, some congregants expressed relief that they don’t have to drive to Friday night services, Rabbi David Kudan said. “The barriers to participation have been lowered,” he said.
An important element of Jewish observance is centered outside of the synagogue, in people’s homes, he noted.
“We are now in everybody’s home. It’s really very lovely.”