Members of Temple Ner Simcha will have to show up early on Thursday if they want a spot at the annual Shavuot service.
On the upcoming holiday, the Los Angeles County synagogue will welcome in-person congregants for the first time in more than two months. Their sanctuary typically holds 300 people, but they’ll only be letting in 70 per new COVID-19 guidelines, and they’ll skip the customary dessert spread.
Still, Rabbi Michael Barclay says the gathering will come as a relief to many.
“It’s been really, really difficult on a lot of families whose emotional and spiritual needs have been ignored,” he said.
Now that they have the green light to restart in-person services, California faith leaders have tough decisions to make about how to safely invite their congregants back onsite.
The California Department of Public Health announced Monday that places of worship can open with certain modifications. The change comes after President Donald Trump urged states to consider religious services essential, and following a letter from 1,200 California religious leaders to Gov. Gavin Newsom, which Barclay signed.
The new rules say temples and churches can welcome up to 100 people or 25% of the building’s capacity, whichever is lower, as long as social distancing measures are in place.
‘Critical Questions’ About Reopening
But even with precautions, scientists say large groups of people indoors pose a risk.
“It all depends on how big of a space those 100 people are in,” said Stanford University biologist Erin Mordecai. “Are they able to maintain distancing between them? Is there really good ventilation that is circulating the air and making it so that people aren’t breathing directly on each other?
"Those are the critical questions," she said. "But I am a little bit surprised to hear that they’re considering allowing such large gatherings of people.”
Bishop Bob Jackson of Acts Full Gospel Church in Oakland also signed the letter to the governor. He said religious organizations have a crucial role to play right now given people’s mental health needs during the pandemic.
“If a hospital deals with the body, the churches deal with the spirit,” he said. “Everybody thinks we just come to church and jump and shout and holler and have a good time and go home, but that’s not all that we do.”
But he said after looking at the guidance from the federal government, the state, Alameda County and his presiding bishop, he won’t be opening until late June.
Many places of worship across the state say they aren’t ready to come back just yet, and that they want to be better able to protect congregants before resuming services.
Making Worship Safer
The new guidelines recommend places of worship create cleaning protocols, screen their staff for symptoms and keep non-family members six feet apart.
They also recommend limiting or eliminating “recitations”, as singing and talking loudly have been linked to faster spread of the virus.
“Because they just increase the amount of respiration you’re doing and expelling viral particles into the air,” Mordecai said.
At the Buddhist Church of Lodi, president Corey Okazaki said he’s worried about the chanting that happens in a typical service.
“The biggest thing is spacing. You’re certainly not going to have people outside their household sitting shoulder to shoulder, like you often do,” he said. “Church is a very social activity for most people. That’s something that’s going to have to change.”
If he were to reopen, he says he’d have to figure out how to mark socially distanced seating on the pews and get people in and out of the building without a bottleneck.
Okazaki is particularly worried about reopening because many of his members are older adults.
“That may be fine for churches with younger and less affected membership, but I don’t feel like we’re at a point where we’re ready to open our doors and say we’re getting back to normal in any meaningful way,” he said.
Redefining Sacred Space
Many houses of worship have responded to the COVID-19 crisis by moving services online. This can involve religious classes, virtual sermons and even remote confession.
Some religious leaders said going virtual has helped them reach more followers. Kevin Kitrell Ross, senior minister at Unity of Sacramento, said their attendance has quadrupled since they went web-only.
“We have in many ways become more connected with our community,” he said. “Is our ministry going forward going to be so facility-dependent? That’s a question leaders need to be asking themselves not just because it’s COVID-19, but because of the way in which people are defining what sacred space looks like.”
But there is one thing he says can’t be replicated online.
“We are a very hug-oriented community, very love-oriented,” he said. “For me, that’s a big part of what’s missing. But I want all of my people to be around to tell the story of this unprecedented time in history.”
At Sacramento’s Mosaic Law Congregation, Rabbi Reuven Taff has been conducting services from a laptop in his home study. He said he had some technical difficulties at first, and leaned on synagogue volunteers for help.
“It has definitely been unexpected and certainly a huge adjustment,” he said. “Not only for me as rabbi … but also for the members of our congregation who crave being together in our physical space.”
But he said Mosaic Law will not open for in-person services until leadership is completely sure it’s safe to do so.
“We just can’t risk people’s lives by gathering together,” he said. “There is a concept in Hebrew called ‘pikuach nefesh’ — two Hebrew words which basically mean that the preservation of one’s life and one’s health takes precedence over all other Jewish religious obligations.”
But other religious organizations are ready to get back to regular events.
At Temple Ner Simcha in Southern California, Barclay says it’s been impossible to cater to everyone digitally. For example, many conservative and orthodox Jewish people do not use technology on the Sabbath, and have not been able to participate in virtual prayer.
“There’s only so many adaptations and adjustments you can make,” he said. “It’s extremely challenging for us, and the more observant you are the more difficult it will be.”
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