Some local Conservative synagogues return to in-person services – The Jewish News of Northern California

Posted By on November 13, 2020

On the first Friday night in November, about two dozen members of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco gathered in a cold, windy courtyard for the synagogues first in-person prayer service in eight months.

March 6 to Nov. 6 eight months to the day since we last had services here at Beth Sholom, said Rabbi Dan Ain in his brief sermon that night.

Many local Orthodox congregations have been holding in-person, mostly outdoor services during the pandemic.

Now some Conservative synagogues are following suit, encouraged by relaxed city and county regulations permitting worship services to resume. San Francisco, for example, began to allow places of worship to reopen for indoor services at 25 percent capacity in late September though none of the Conservative synagogues J. spoke with were planning to have indoor services soon.

The service at Beth Sholom lasted about an hour and included singing (behind masks, of course) and plenty of safety precautions. Attendees had to RSVP, affirm that they had no Covid symptoms and have their temperature taken by a volunteer upon entry. Attendance was limited to 30 people and chairs were set up far from each other.

Congregation Bnai Shalom in Walnut Creek began holding outdoor Friday night services with similar precautions on Oct. 30. And Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland has been holding regular outdoor services since June.

All three shuls have held other in-person events such as an occasional outdoor bnai mitzvah or small gatherings in the sukkah but Friday night prayers are the only regular in-person services the three synagogues are planning for right now. And they are all outside. At Bnai Shalom and Beth Abraham, the rabbis stand behind plexiglass barriers while they lead services.

Its one more way that Conservative synagogues are easing back into normal worship mode.

Early in the pandemic, the Conservative movement, responding to congregants and clergys desire to pray together, created guidance for member congregations that wanted to stream Shabbat services (which would not typically be allowed under Conservative halachah, or Jewish law). The leniency was controversial in some circles.

Beth Abraham and Bnai Shalom began streaming around that time, but say the Conservative movements official guidance did not play a big role in their decision. Both have continued to stream their services even as they have begun holding limited in-person services.

Everything that we do, if we do an in-person thing, its also simultaneously being streamed over Zoom, said Rabbi Daniel Stein of Bnai Shalom. I still have a computer in front of me so I can say hi to people and engage with them as they come onto the Zoom call.

But those who sign up to attend the service in person 35 people maximum are getting something more.

Were responding to a variety of emotional and spiritual needs in our community, Stein said. Some are not going to feel safe attending services until theres a vaccine, so we want to provide for their emotional and spiritual needs. Others feel such a sense of isolation because we havent been able to gather in physical ways but we wanted to do it in a way thats safe for everybody.

And who decides whats safe for everybody? Many synagogues, including Bnai Shalom, have established committees to make or review pandemic-related decisions for the community. Some of the committee members are experts in relevant fields; in Bnai Shaloms case, for example, the committee includes an infectious disease doctor, an education administrator and a security expert.

Contra Costa County, where Bnai Shalom is located, relaxed restrictions on indoor religious services on Oct. 27, but Stein says his shul is proudly lagging behind what the county permits.

We always want to be one step behind whats allowable, in a sense, out of an abundance of caution he said.

Beth Abraham took a different approach. Rather than waiting for Alameda County to permit limited indoor worship, which it did on Oct. 23, and then take that as guidance to resume outdoor gatherings, the synagogue resumed outdoor worship services in June, almost immediately after the county permitted those, Rabbi Mark Bloom said. Most have been Friday night services, but there have also been some bnai mitzvahs.

Our feeling was, the sooner we can get back to something thats very safe, then were going to do it, Bloom said. When we started having them, most people were very excited. Others said they wouldnt go in person, they were too concerned about safety, but they were glad were doing it.

Masks and RSVPs are required at Beth Abraham, and chairs are set up with appropriate distancing. But unlike Beth Sholom, attendees at Beth Abraham still arent allowed to sing, an activity that can potentially spread infectious droplets.

Ruach [spirit] at services is very interesting because people cant sing, but that means Ive finally gotten them to clap to the rhythm of the song, Bloom said. Its hard to get people to clap at Conservative services.

Stein said some people need to be gently reminded not to hug friends or get too close. People want to connect so much right now, and we have to remind people to keep their distance, he said.

So whats next? Stein, like Bloom and Ain, said hes going to stick with in-person Friday nights for now. Saturday mornings will continue over Zoom because there are particular issues around how you might conduct a Torah service in such an environment, he said.

But in the long run, Stein said, there are many questions to be answered.

What happens on the other side of this? he pondered. A lot of people have found the Zoom experience very meaningful, so I have a lot of questions about what post-pandemic Judaism will look like.

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Some local Conservative synagogues return to in-person services - The Jewish News of Northern California

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