PEABODY – The Conservative Temple Ner Tamid, like many shuls on the North Shore, has been closed to in-person services since March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, with vaccines going into arms, the congregation is planning a “soft opening” on Friday, April 30, with a Shabbat evening service for about 40 congregants, social distancing and masks to go along with kippahs.
“With care, with caution, with special requirements,” is how Rabbi Richard Perlman described the soft opening, which he said is akin to restarting a stopped train with its wheels turning slowly at first.
A survey of several North Shore synagogues shows that some are moving to welcome congregants in some fashion this month. Others are not quite ready to throw open the sanctuary doors as COVID cases in the state rose significantly late last month, with some health experts calling it the start of the fourth surge.
Many temples are taking a wait-and-see approach as they study local, state, and national guidelines and watch case counts.
“No one is more anxious for that than I,” said Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead about being in front of the congregation again for services. Myer and Music Director Jon Nelson have taken part in live-streamed Shabbat services from an empty sanctuary throughout the pandemic, the pair separated by Plexiglas partitions on the bima.
“We can’t set a date because the situation is still fluid and we are going to be guided by the protocols” set by the state, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Marblehead Health Department, Meyer said. “People need to stay cautious and aware.”
Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott plans to reopen the daily minyan services in its sanctuary two days a week.
The evening minyan will be in person on Tuesdays starting April 6, while the morning minyan will be held in person on Thursdays, staring April 8. The minyan services will continue to be broadcast online. Health guidelines require participants to remain masked even if they are vaccinated, among other requirements.
The synagogue also plans to restart in-person b’nai mitzvot services in the sanctuary with private ceremonies, said Rabbi Michael Ragozin. The plan is to restart in-person Shabbat services in July.
“All of this is subject to change as the public health situation dictates,” Ragozin said. The temple has been offering virtual services for 15 years, and if anything, the pandemic has “upped our game.”
Ira Dinnes, president of the Conservative Temple Sinai in Marblehead, said in an email reopening plans are unclear at the moment, but the congregation is “hoping to get Shabbat going sooner [rather] than later, perhaps Kabbalat Shabbat outside.” Dinnes expects High Holiday services will have people in the seats in the fall.
“I expect to follow CDC/State recommendations. We have older members so I am guessing most will be vaccinated,” Dinnes said. He also expected Zoom services to continue after the pandemic.
Rabbi David Kudan of the Reform Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody said a committee is guiding the temple’s reopening.
It has had a few b’nai mitzvot services limited to 25 attendees – including clergy – and Plexiglas partitions on the lectern.
Tiferet Shalom is planning on three Erev Shabbat services in April with reservations required and limited attendance.
“It’s a cautious, limited opening but people are eager for the personal contact,” Kudan said.
At Temple Emanu-El, a letter from the temple’s president, Lisa Nagel, does not set a timetable for the reopening.
“In some ways, re-opening will pose even greater challenges than when we were forced to curtail in-person activities at this time last year,” Nagel wrote. “However, we know and are confident that we can handle the challenges!”
For several months, the Marblehead temple has held in-person b’nai mitzvot celebrations with a maximum attendance of 25, following the governor’s guidelines. Attendees are spread out and wearing masks.
Temple Emanu-El is making plans, Nagel wrote, for a limited number of people to attend Friday evening services, opening the social hall to accommodate more seating and giving priority to those observing Sheloshim and Yahrzeits.
The temple is planning an outdoor confirmation ceremony for 100 people, in accordance with state guidelines, and an outdoor service on June 18 to coincide with the installation of the temple’s board.
The congregation will continue to stream services remotely after it reopens.
“We began live streaming our services several months before the pandemic, and there is no reason to stop,” Meyer said.
“In general, we are planning something outdoors when the weather gets better,” said Rabbi Alison Adler of Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly. The temple does not have a definitive reopening plan as leaders continue to watch the case numbers.
Adler said temple leaders are thinking about a hybrid online/in person ceremony for the temple’s annual meeting at the end of May.
Chabad of the North Shore on Burrill Street in Swampscott has announced its “Soft Shul Launch” on its website as a way to reopen for in-person services.
“It is with optimism, caution, and joy that we begin the process of carefully reopening our shul,” the announcement reads. “With the help of our committed COVID-19 Taskforce, we have put a variety of safety measures in place to ensure the health and well-being of all of our members.”
Shabbat morning services are limited to 30 people, and advanced signup online is required. Services are running from 11 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. and are being held on the deck to the left of the building. No food or drink is being served and masks are required, according to a list of safety measures on Chabad’s website.
Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester has been totally closed to all but Rabbi Steven Lewis and office administrators since a Purim celebration last year.
“We decided we are ready to open the shul,” said President Eric Kaplan, who oversees a COVID task force that includes temple and lay leaders and doctors. They are working on protocols to reopen, and the plan is to present them to synagogue groups such as the ritual and programming committees and other stakeholders.
“It’s not going to be easy because there are a lot of moving parts,” Kaplan said. One of the ideas is allowing those who have been vaccinated to be able to go back to in-person services, “but that is all up in the air at this point.” About 65 percent of the congregation is over 65, and most have been vaccinated.
“I suspect it will be the next month or two we will at least start doing some services – that is my goal,” said Kaplan, who added that Rabbi Lewis is “actually pretty excited about it.”
He said the temple will continue to use Zoom for services after the pandemic ends so that people far away, or living in Brooksby Village in Peabody, who are unable to attend in person can take part in services.
“That’s not going to change. Zoom is going to be part of our life, it’s not going to go away,” Kaplan said.