Congregations navigate surging COVID cases

Congregations navigate surging COVID cases

As omicron variant results in staggering number of positive cases, rabbis and synagogue leaders strategize what comes next

Rodef Shalom Congregation. Photo courtesy of Rodef Shalom Congregation
Rodef Shalom Congregation. Photo courtesy of Rodef Shalom Congregation

During services last week, Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt shared a thought with members of Temple Ohav Shalom about the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases: It is OK to “feel down,” he said, adding that expressing that sentiment was actually aligned with the weekly Torah portion.

One of the lessons of Parshat Bo is that, despite hardship, a better tomorrow eventually arrives. As the ancient Israelites learned, following the horrific pain of Egypt there was a triumphant exodus. Likewise, although no one knows when this pandemic will end, there will be a “time to come out of it,” Weisblatt said.

Before concluding his message — which was delivered virtually — Weisblatt reminded his congregants that “we need to be safe and smart and move forward as a community.”

How to “move forward” — and whether that will occur strictly online — is a question Pittsburgh’s non-Orthodox rabbis and congregations are navigating in light of the newest COVID surge.

On Jan. 5, Allegheny County reported 3,392 new infections, marking an all-time high.

At Ohav Shalom, a COVID task force meets each Sunday evening to evaluate whether the upcoming week’s activities should occur in person or not, Weisblatt said. As of Jan. 4, the congregation’s preschool was still meeting in person and an administrator was still working in the office. But the Shabbat morning service on Jan. 8 will occur only on Zoom.

At Temple David in Monroeville, “we are continuing as before: in person and on Zoom,” Rabbi Barbara Symons said.

While the congregation currently still gathers in person, Temple David leaders are “monitoring the surge carefully,” Symons added.

On Jan. 2, members of the Reopening/Covid committee at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill recommended to the executive committee that the congregation return to virtual services, meetings and programs through Jan. 23. The executive committee approved that recommendation, according to Drew Barkley, Temple Sinai’s executive director.

“Our goal is to protect everyone as best we can during the omicron surge, with the hope of returning to an in-person/Zoom hybrid when we can,” Barkley said. “We have also decided to ask everyone entering the building, when we reopen, to provide proof of vaccination.”

Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill, which requires attendees of services and other in-person programs to show proof of vaccination upon entering the building, recently updated its COVID protocols in light of the recent surge of cases in Allegheny County.

“Only those individuals who are eligible for vaccination (ages 5 and up) and have been fully vaccinated with booster, if eligible, are allowed to attend in-person gatherings and services,” according to Kristin Zappone, Beth Shalom’s marketing and communications specialist. Those age 4 and under will not be permitted to attend in-person events.

Beth Shalom’s COVID-19 task force also designated which types of masks are “acceptable” — N95, KN95, KF94 and/or a double mask of a surgical, medical or disposable mask covered by a cloth mask.

Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside also is encouraging attendees to wear N95 or KN95 masks.

“We’re very concerned to keep everyone who spends time in the building as safe as possible,” said Anna Gitliz, Rodef Shalom’s marketing and communications manager. To that end, the congregation is providing “masks to congregants in need, although supply chain issues are making them increasingly difficult for everyone to find,” Gitliz said. “Aside from that, our policies remain the same — that is, we are strongly urging congregants to be fully vaccinated if they attend services and other in-person events, and we require everyone to be masked.”

Gitliz added that “all of Rodef Shalom's employees are fully vaccinated, if not boosted.” As of Jan. 4, Adat Shalom Synagogue in Cheswick hadn’t changed its protocols for in-person gatherings: Attendees must be masked, vaccinated and sit in the sanctuary at an “appropriate social distance.”

Nonetheless, the uptick in cases may require that decision to be revisited, Adat Shalom’s Rabbi Yaier Lehrer said.

Many congregants at the suburban congregation have not yet returned to in-person services. And as the omicron variant continues to spread, Lehrer anticipates more members will opt to attend services online.

About a month ago, Temple Emanuel of South Hills moved to virtual Saturday morning services and Torah study. On Jan. 3, the congregation decided to move its religious school online as well, said Temple Emanuel’s executive director Leslie Hoffman.

Despite transitioning many of its functions online, Temple Emanuel is continuing to host in-person Friday night services where masks are required, Hoffman said. Whether the in-person services will continue or shift online is “subject to change,” she added.

The 3,392 new COVID cases reported in Allegheny County on Jan. 5 represent a dramatic increase from even a month ago. On Dec. 5, the 7-day average of new cases was 730.

Representatives of Pittsburgh’s Orthodox congregations maintained they are continuing to monitor the county totals, while meeting with medical advisors.

Rabbi Sruly Altein, of Chabad of Squirrel Hill, said masking is now in force again during services.

At Congregation Poale Zedeck synagogue leadership is “cautiously watching the situation and following the rigorous protocols we have in place,” according to a representative.

Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, of Shaare Torah Congregation, told congregants in a Jan. 14 email, “Covid continues to sweep through the community and B”H practically everyone who has been infected recently has been ok. Nonetheless, while you have every right to make decisions for yourself, but you have no right to impose those decisions on others. Therefore, even if you think you are ok, or you think your positive Covid test results are a false positive, or whatever way you look at life – please don’t #showupinshul if you have been advised to quarantine or isolate.” PJC

This story has been updated.

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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