SWAMPSCOTT – Rosh Hashanah begins Monday evening, Sept. 6, and in order to keep members safe, area temples are tightening up their COVID-19 health and safety guidelines.
For the High Holidays, Chabad of the North Shore plans to hold services in a big tent that can accommodate 100 worshippers at its Burrill Street shul amid a surge in cases due to the highly contagious delta variant.
It’s one of the most visible signs that COVID-19 continues to impact how Jews will be worshiping for the High Holidays for the second year in a row.
While many shuls closed during the pandemic last year, offering services via Zoom or livestreaming, Chabad stayed open using “multiple services, locations and times,” according to a message to members.
“We were confident that this year we would be able to be back indoors and celebrate as usual. But G-d has other plans,” said Chabad Rabbi Yossi Lipsker, in his message to worshipers. “Now, as the delta variant is making its mark, it’s clear that an outdoor tent is the way to go for these High Holidays.” Attendance will be by registration only.
Temples that had asked members to wear masks only if they were not vaccinated are now requiring them regardless of vaccination status. Some are asking members to show their little white vaccination cards. Some are surveying members to find out if they wish to attend in person or online.
Some shuls are making space outdoors for those who are unvaccinated to attend in person. Temples surveyed all plan to offer High Holiday services online.
For the second year in a row during the pandemic, Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester, the only Jewish congregation on Cape Ann, has “reluctantly decided” to offer virtual High Holiday services. It will inform members online on how to access High Holiday prayer books, and also provide dates and times for services on its website. “Social distancing requirements would have limited attendance, interaction, and participation in ways that do not align with the values we have espoused for our 100 year history,” the temple told members on its website. “So, we will take what we learned about Zoom this past year to make services as lovely as possible. Additionally, small in-person gatherings for Taslich, shofar blowing and youth programming will be planned.”
Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott is offering both in-person and livestreaming of High Holiday services while also seeking to keep members safe.
“Guided by the Jewish values of pikuah nefesh (safeguarding life), sakanat nefeshot (avoiding endangering life), and kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh (we are responsible for one another), we are offering in-person services and a high-quality livestream,” said Anna Hathaway, Congregation Shirat Hayam’s business manager, in an email.
Shirat Hayam, which has 500 family members, will require masks. It will set up for 40 percent capacity to allow enough space for families to sit together and socially distance from others. The large shul on Atlantic Avenue will require proof of vaccination for those 12 and older. For adults with an approved medical exemption, the shul will require a recent negative test result.
Dr. Jack Karas, 79, a semi-retired pulmonologist who lives in Marblehead, advised Shirat Hayam’s task force on COVID-related safety issues, stressing he is not an infectious disease doctor.
Karas has drawn from various sources of information, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and an infectious disease physician at Salem Hospital, among others. His role, he said, is to relay medical information to board members and the temple president who then set the temple’s health guidelines.
A few months ago, Karas said, the task force decided that if you were vaccinated, you could come into the temple and feel fairly safe. It was thought that if you had a rare breakthrough case, you carried a low viral load.
But, according to a July 31 article in The New York Times, Karas said the CDC’s director, Rochelle Walensky, the former chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, found that breakthrough cases had “high viral loads suggesting an increased risk of transmission …”
“So, we realized for the first time that our initial policy wouldn’t hold up,” Karas said.
The epidemiologist at Salem Hospital told Karas a breakthrough case “has the potential to aerosolize thousands of particles.” This was not the case with the original coronavirus variant. “The delta is much more virulent and will infect many, many more people,” Karas said.
“The reality is we have to tighten up,” Karas said.
Until recently, Karas said, Salem Hospital had three or four patients hospitalized with COVID. None were in intensive care. As of Aug. 24, the hospital had 12 COVID patients and two in the ICU.
Karas said he and his wife have no underlying health conditions and yet they plan to stay home and enjoy Shirat Hayam’s High Holiday services on Zoom, like they did last year.
Other temples have been advising members of their heightened COVID safety protocols.
Temple Sinai President Alan Barnett of Lynn said the Marblehead temple will be offering a remote option in addition to in-person worship. Masks are required inside and out.
“And we are only allowing vaccinated people inside the temple, and you have to show proof of vaccination,” Barnett said. The temple will be offering space on its outdoor patio for those who are not vaccinated but who wish to attend in-person.
“We haven’t had any problem with proof of vaccination, they all understand,” Barnett said. “People are so used to it now,” Barnett said of the COVID-19 protocols, “I haven’t had anyone come to me and say, ‘Why are they doing this?’ ”
“Things are a bit fluid right now, although we are not contemplating being closed,” said Temple Emanu-El Rabbi David Meyer in an email on Aug. 5 “If the current policy holds, members will be welcome to attend in person so long as they are masked … We will also livestream our services as we’ve been doing for the past months.”
The Reform temple in Marblehead, which has about 575 family-unit members, also sent out a survey to members asking them if they plan to attend in-person or online.
“We are planning carefully to ensure everyone’s safety and comfort on the holidays, and are prepared to shift should the official guidelines change,” Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly said in a letter to members. “The situation is very fluid, and the occupancy rate may shift up to the date of services. We appreciate your patience and flexibility.”
B’nai Abraham is requiring masks, and services will be carried via Zoom and Streamspot. There are no reserved seats, and services will be shortened to limit time indoors.
There will be no individual honors and Torah scrolls will not be carried through the sanctuary. The temple is also holding outdoor services in a tent for school-age children who will be wearing masks.
“It’s a little tricky,” said Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman of Chabad of Peabody about holding primary services in the tent, and smaller programs and services indoors.
“We are asking people to … just be sensitive and understanding of other people,” Schusterman said. “And if you are not feeling well, obviously don’t come. If you are feeling unsafe, obviously you shouldn’t come.” Masks will be made available.
“We are hoping that people will use common sense and be responsible,” Schusterman said. “I want people to come and pray,” he added.
“Temple Tiferet Shalom currently plans to offer High Holiday services both in-person and via remote streaming format,” said Bryna Rosen Misiura, president of the Reform Peabody shul. “Masks will be required for all in-person attendees, with social distancing strongly encouraged.”
The “rapidly evolving situations of COVID,” have the Conservative Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody requiring masks whether someone is vaccinated or not. The temple is also encouraging social distancing.
“We feel that the weight of evidence supports making changes to our reopening protocols,” said Dr. Jeff Newton, Rabbi Bernie Horowitz, President Adele Lubarsky and Rabbi Richard Perlman in the statement to its 200 family members.
“We are now mandating masks for anyone who comes to Temple Emmanuel,” said Rabbi Greg Hersh of the Wakefield temple. This is a change from an earlier mask-optional policy. The temple will offer services on Zoom and will not ask for anyone’s vaccination card.