Synagogues adjust High Holidays Plans as Delta Variant Spreads

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Synagogues across the country are re-evaluating their plans for in-person High Holiday services as COVID-19 cases spike. 

Agudath Israel Etz Ahayem, a congregation in Montgomery, Alabama, had opened for in-person services in June after 16 months of virtual programming. In August, with the spread of the Delta variant, the congregation’s board of directors decided to go virtual again. 

Scott Kramer, the congregation’s rabbi, says the board’s decision was the right one for public health, but emotionally wrought. Alabama has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the U.S.: Less than half of the population has received at least one dose. “I think a lot of people are depressed by it,” Kramer says. “I really think everybody thought we were going to be getting back together.”

Even in states with higher vaccination rates, there is rising concern of breakthrough infections and spread among children under 12, who are ineligible for the vaccine. In late July, the CDC updated their guidance to recommend universal masking indoors in COVID-19 hotspots, regardless of vaccination status. 

Congregation Bet Haverim in Davis, California was originally planning on holding in-person High Holiday services at 50% capacity, but amidst rising cases, they switched to virtual services in early August. “It’s nice that traditional Jewish values happen to be a good guide to action in these awful circumstances,” says Doug Walter, office manager at Bet Haverim. “Preservation of life and spirit is more important than the specifics of tradition.”

Adat Chaim Synagogue in Owings Mill, Maryland has been planning for virtual High Holiday services since June, says Rabbi Larry Pinsker. The synagogue has not held any in-person events since Purim 2020, and he says they’ve been able to make the best of programming on Zoom.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, Mizpah Congregation is planning to hold both in-person and virtual services. With COVID-19 cases on the rise, the board of Mizpah met to re-evaluate their decision in August. They decided to move forward with in-person services—where masks and vaccination will be required—but cancelled their oneg and break the fast. Instead of a choir, just one person will sing. Congregants must RSVP, and the sanctuary will be at about 25 percent capacity. 

Mizpah Congregation president Frank Miller says he hopes the board won’t have to amend their decision, but the situation is fluid. The Chattanooga city website says Hamilton County is currently at a “tipping point for uncontrolled community spread.” “The numbers are just getting crazy here,” Miller says. 

Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield, Michigan is also planning on a hybrid High Holidays. The temple is holding in-person, family services outside—at a local high school’s football stadium—along with in-person services in their sanctuary. The outdoor service is meant to provide a safer option for children under 12 ineligible for the vaccine, Executive Director Brian Fishman says. Masks will be required at both locations.

Because the situation is ever-changing, it’s difficult to gauge how many people will be comfortable attending services in-person a month from now, Fishman says. “There are people who won’t come because of safety concerns,” he says. “And then there are the people who, it’s not the holidays unless they’re here.”

Both Kramer and Miller say they’ve had staff members or congregants threaten to leave the congregation over decisions to hold services virtually or in-person. Miller says his congregation has political pressure from “both sides,” but the decision was ultimately made based on the number of COVID-19 cases in the community. 

For Kramer, a weekly Havdalah group on Zoom has kept his spirits high, but he says the need to return to virtual services is disconcerting. “This was going to be our breaking out, and then Delta hit,” he says. “A lot of us were prepared for last holidays, but this year, I don’t think anybody’s prepared.”

Top Photo: Members of Mizpah Congregation at an ice cream social. Credit Richard Zachary. 

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