MARBLEHEAD – It was an emotional Friday at Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead. In March 2020, after the COVID-19 pandemic became a public health crisis, the temple closed its doors and held services online. Yet on July 2, for the first time in over a year, the temple held an in-person, indoor Shabbat service.
As Rabbi David Meyer recalled, it was an inspiring night, made more so by a parody of John Sebastian’s “Welcome Back, Kotter” theme song, which was performed by the rabbi and temple Music Director Jon Nelson.
“There was a rousing chant of ‘welcome back’ and smiles throughout the sanctuary,” Meyer said. “It was a highlight.”
With COVID-19 cases declining in the area, local synagogues have been welcoming back their congregations for in-person worship, with some changes from the pre-COVID era.
“We started very, very slowly,” said Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid of the North Shore in Peabody. “We closed the temple, shut down. Everything was on Zoom for a year and a half. We just reopened. We’ve got to slowly do it.”
In-person services at Ner Tamid resumed at the end of May. As Perlman explained, “We opened with modifications.”
Services are conducted on the pulpit instead of closer to the congregation. During an aliyah, only one person at a time can stand before the Torah until further notice. The number of gabbaim is currently limited to one instead of two. People who are vaccinated do not have to wear a mask. For those who are unvaccinated, the temple recommends – but does not mandate – that they wear a mask. Although people can now attend in-person, the temple is continuing to offer a virtual option.
“Some people are still a little uncomfortable,” Perlman said. “We try to keep them into consideration.”
Temple Emanu-El also requests that people who are unvaccinated wear a mask while attending services. The temple has opened up seating in the rear to create a larger space for those who wish to socially distance as well as to increase ventilation, although Meyer said no one sat in the rear area during the July 2 service. One part of the service that has not returned yet is the oneg Shabbat buffet.
At Temple Israel in Boston, Rabbi Andrew Oberstein was planning an oneg as part of last Friday’s in-person Shabbat service for the Riverway Project, an initiative for young Jews in their 20s and 30s. It was the first such service since the pandemic began, with a dinner featuring wine, beer, cider and vegetarian Thai food.
“It’s an opportunity to really schmooze and be together,” Oberstein said of the monthly event.
That morning, Oberstein faced an additional challenge – rainy weather due to Tropical Storm Elsa prompted him to move the location indoors instead of having it in the temple’s outdoor garden.
“We had a limited capacity because of COVID restrictions,” he noted. “We have more capacity inside than we would [have had] outside,” although “we know rain sometimes keeps people away.”
There were 125 scheduled in-person attendees. All had to register in advance. The temple has also reopened its weekly Friday-night Shabbat services, which also require registration. Both the Riverway Shabbat service and the weekly Friday-night services have a virtual option.
At Emanu-El, although Friday-night services have reopened to in-person worship with a virtual option, the temple is keeping Saturday-morning services virtual for now.
“We’re still figuring Saturdays out,” Meyer said, although he noted that bar and bat mitzvah services are open to those participating.
There has been a lot of figuring out in general as congregations explore how to reopen.
“A huge amount of planning went into it,” Meyer said.
He noted, “We have a very robust medical advisory team,” which includes medical experts and a representative from the Marblehead Board of Health. “They’ve watched as the numbers of new cases have gone down significantly, to almost nil.”
Perlman said that when the pandemic began, “we made a decision based on pikuach nefesh, ‘save a life, keep people healthy.’ It has not changed. The only change is knowledge, how to keep people safe – vaccines, treatments, masks when it’s appropriate – the things we’ve learned.”
As he explained, “COVID-19 is something nobody knew anything about before March last year. We’ve learned an awful lot. Now, people are being vaccinated.” Citing the new COVID variants, he added, “We’re still learning.”
Perlman also noted, “Not everybody can get the vaccine, for whatever reason – choice, health. Others may be immunocompromised. … They’re not sure if the vaccine will be working for them. We want to be mindful of that.”
Similarly, Meyer recognizes that there are “those in the congregation with issues of immune systems that make it impossible still to return. We want to make sure nobody is left behind.”
Many congregants, but not all, are returning for in-person worship. About 100 came to the first in-person Shabbat service at Emanu-El since the pandemic began. At Ner Tamid, the ratio of in-person to remote worshippers is about 60:40 on Fridays and 80:20 on Saturdays, according to Perlman. When the temple first reopened, the numbers were 30 percent in-person, 70 percent online.
“I’m starting to see people I had not seen before,” Perlman said. “They’re starting to show up in-person.”
Perlman is gratified by the feeling of being in the synagogue with people around him again.
“That, to me, is priceless,” he said.
Meyer recalled the warm response throughout the sanctuary during the first Friday back at Emanu-El.
“It really created a festive atmosphere of ‘welcome back,’” he said. “It was nice not only to see the sanctuary filled with our members, but full of lots of smiles.”
Yet, Perlman reflected, “I don’t know if we’re saying goodbye to remote. We’re saying hello to hybrid. We’re saying hello to something new in the 21st century. I’m not sure we’re saying goodbye to remote. We’re saying hello to the new normal.”