A recent article published in Tablet Magazine by Liel Leibovitz “Our bodies our shuls” has apparently stirred up a hornets’ nest of commentary and controversy in some corners.
I won’t quote the article at length. Read it for yourself. But here is the upshot:
“Open the doors wide. Trust your congregants’ judgment. Require masks if you’d like, get creative with outdoor minyans for families with small children, but do not suffocate the spirit of the season”Tablet Magazine, August 29, 2021
I disagree with Leibovitz.
I think what Leibovitz missed is that no one should be actively working to discourage communal observance of the holiday. But that doesn’t mean that we need to gather in person to and possibly send another wave to the ER. The Delta variant has changed the calculation and I know our communal leaders are doing the best they can.
To paraphrase the immortal Gloria Gaynor, “We will Survive” without physically gathering one more year.
Take my shul, Peninsula Sinai, in Foster City, CA in the highly vaccinated San Francisco Bay Area. We are a pretty forward thinking Conservative Synagogue, if that’s not an oxymoron on its face. During the pandemic we have lost far too many members we didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to. But since March, 2020, we’ve been all Zoom all the time, with a few notable exceptions.
We once had a “drive through Shiva call” in our parking lot for a beloved elderly member of our community who passed away in Summer, 2020 which looked more like the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena with mourners waving from their vehicles like a Rose Parade float as they took a turn around our parking lot while people on the hoods of their parked cars blew air kisses and gave virtual hugs.
We’ve done socially distanced B’nai Mitzvah with only family members in attendance. We had picnics in the parking lot for Lag B’Omer before the Delta variant was even a thing. We had Shabbat services outside in a circus tent in the courtyard. The first tent blew down in a windstorm and ended up on the roof of the building so “son of circus tent” is now more securely lashed to the building. Fingers crossed, so far so good (It pays to live in California, I know)
We’ve made it through 18 months of Zoom thanks in large part to the open and realistic policies set by our clergy and communal leaders that have been done in consultation with medical experts and informed by science. These decisions have not been without their stops and starts but have been very effectively communicated to the community at large. We’re also doing this in the middle of a 12-month process to find our next Rabbi.
It’s very interesting to me how in the synagogue world that Zoom and live streaming (once unthinkable in my Conservative Shul) have become accepted methods of engagement. Many members of our elderly community are now benefitting from online services where none existed before. COVID forced that change.
Our community closed down Zoom in July and are strictly livestreaming now (hey, check us out during the Chagim) and while it’s certainly one more degree removed and probably a little passive, it seems to be working out OK. Even with Delta, we are back indoors with everyone masked, vaccinated and socially distanced to the greatest extent possible.
For Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur next week, we’ll be hybrid about 50% capacity (all pre-registered, masked and “shul cleared” for vaccines) and that means at least some social distancing. Under-12 programming will probably be outside in the courtyard tent.
COVID is a scourge.
It’s very different from the flu of other plagues that have afflicted us in the past. We’re lucky to have an FDA-approved vaccine, despite its flaws so please take it and mask up, if you’re able, as a matter of civic responsibility.
We complain about Zoom, (or modified distanced, vaxxed or whatever kind of gatherings we’re doing this year) and while certainly not ideal, these modified gatherings are a bridge and for many, a bridge we may need to cross again this year.
We’ve missed a lot in the last 18 months, but Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, while clearly the most well attended events of the synagogue year, are just one of the communal events we have.
Sedarim, Hanukkah, Shabbat, heck even Sukkot and Shavuot have built-in communal elements. Why make such a big deal then about 3 days this September?
So, here is what I say. Give our clergy and lay leaders a break. Our communal leaders are doing the best they can with decision making and thoughtfully creating a path forward. We can suck up the virtual holidays for one more year if it means keeping people safe and healthy and out of the hospital with the Delta variant or God knows what new variant is out there brewing in our great unvaccinated toxic stew of a community.
We will survive this and better times are on the horizon.