As Allegheny and other surrounding counties entered the “yellow phase” on May 15, pursuant to Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan for a staged reopening of the commonwealth, Jewish organizations cautiously prepared to move forward after being shuttered since mid-March.
Despite the governor’s easing of some restrictions on business operations and social gatherings, most local Jewish institutions and congregations will not be quick to open their doors or to change the procedures under which they have been operating for the last two months.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, for example, will continue “doing everything the way we have been,” said Adam Hertzman, the Federation’s director of marketing, who noted that employees will still work remotely and that in-person meetings will not occur for the time being.
Federation CEO and president Jeff Finkelstein “is keeping in mind the principle of pikuach nefesh,” Hertzman said. “There is no reason for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh to be aggressive with regard to reopening things for ourselves, and every reason to be cautious.”
The Federation is not planning any major live programs through 2020, said Meryl Ainsman, Federation’s board chair, but is looking into “alternative ways” to hold some of its annual events, such as its campaign kickoff, Apples and Honey Fall Festival and Mitzvah Day.
The Jewish Association on Aging, which was an early adapter of best practices to keep its staff and residents protected from the coronavirus, will stay “red for as long as it takes,” said Debbie Winn-Horvitz, president and CEO of the JAA. “While we can only control what happens on our campus, and within our walls, we certainly feel as though we have a responsibility to continue to educate our staff, so that when they leave the campus they’re still taking all the protocols and precautions with them, not only to continue to keep our residents and our clients safe, but also to keep their families safe.”
Because of the nature of elder care, and its inherent population risks, the JAA took guidance from national organizations early on and has been able to remain safe, with only one employee testing positive for COVID-19, and no residents infected as of press time. As a result, “the JAA has built up a wealth of information that will be valuable for the rest of Jewish Pittsburgh and beyond,” said Hertzman.
For the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, “the biggest change with going to yellow is how it affects childcare,” said Cathy Samuels, the JCC’s senior director of marketing and communication.
Based on guidance from the Office of Child Development and Early Learning (a collaboration between the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services), the goal is to reopen child care in both Squirrel Hill and the South Hills on June 1, said Samuels, who added that the JCC continues working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as state and local governments in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, to determine the status of summer camp, gym usage and other activities.
Squirrel Hill congregations have taken a mixed approach to the status shift.
At Temple Sinai, a reopening committee has been formed to “create a roadmap and policy recommendations,” noted Tami Prine, the congregation’s marketing and communications director. The synagogue building will continue to be closed to all in-person gatherings at least until June 8, “while offering services, classes, and meetings with clergy online and via teleconferencing,” according to a May 14 email to members.
Likewise, Congregation Rodef Shalom is continuing its current protocol, and congregational leadership has “not yet determined a timeline to reinstate gatherings or in-person services,” said Stephanie Rex, Rodef Shalom’s director of communications and marketing. The congregation will continue with its weekly livestreamed services and virtual events. Changes in plans will be announced once leadership makes those determinations.
Congregation Beth Shalom’s building will remain closed for the time being and is continuing to hold services via Zoom, said Anthony Colaizzi, Beth Shalom’s communications and design manager.
Relying on recommendations from the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, as well as the congregation’s medical response team, Congregation Poale Zedeck also remains closed.
Based on the “supreme halachic value of saving lives,” the Squirrel Hill-based congregation “has endorsed the approach of waiting for at least two weeks before opening after it is legally permitted,” Poale Zedeck leaders wrote in a May 15 email to members.
“To that end, on June 1st (the medical response team) will be evaluating the data that emerges and advising us whether the time has come then to unroll a staged plan toward opening minyanim,” wrote the congregation’s president Louis Felder and its spiritual leader, Rabbi Daniel Yolkut. “The shul will certainly not reopen before that point, and therefore we continue to advocate tefillah be-yechidus, individual prayer, including over Shavuos.”
Another Orthodox congregation in Squirrel Hill, Shaare Torah Congregation, has taken a different approach. On Friday, May 15, the congregation began the process of reopening, “in strictest compliance with the Orders and Guidance of the Governor’s Office, the PA Department of Health, the Allegheny County Health Department and the advice and recommendations of the Shaare Torah Communicable Disease Prevention Committee,” according to a May 14 email to the congregation from its president, Jonathon Young.
“The leadership of Shaare Torah believes that it is appropriate to begin holding services, that it is in the best interest of our members and our shul community and that by following the guidelines of the state and local authorities and our Communicable Disease Prevention Committee, we can take the first small steps of a long journey to resuming daily services, classes, kiddushes and simchas,” Young wrote. “In making its recommendations, the Committee took into consideration the size of the main sanctuary, where all services will be held for the foreseeable future, the composition of our membership and the requirements for maintaining proper hygiene, social distancing, etc.”
The minyans will be limited, according to another email sent to Shaare Torah members from Rabbi Daniel Wasserman.
“We decided that for now we will only have one minyan for each tefillah (Shacharit, Mincha, Ma’ariv ) per day,” Wasserman wrote. “As I indicated, the reopening of the shul is an evolving situation and we are monitoring and evaluating it as we go forward.”
The number of participants attending any service at Shaare Torah will be limited to 15, and those wishing to attend, “must register” with Wasserman “for each minyan,” according to Young’s email. “Priority will be given to Shaare Torah members.”
Seats will be spaced at least 20 feet apart, and all participants are required to “wash or sanitize their hands prior to entering the sanctuary, wear masks and follow no-touch procedures for Torah reading,” Young wrote. Those exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, or not feeling well, will not be allowed to participate. Anyone who has been “diagnosed with COVID-19 will not be able to attend services until cleared, in writing, by his/her physician.”
Suburban congregations were uniformly cautious in response to the move into the yellow phase, with no congregation opening its building on May 15.
The “yellow phase is designed to alleviate economic pressures on businesses and has very little impact on synagogues,” Temple Emanuel of South Hills explained in a statement to the congregation. “Schools and gatherings over 25 people remain prohibited and while Temple’s staff and leadership continues to monitor the latest information available, we must stay the course in the virtual space.”
The Reform synagogue’s Early Childhood Learning Center has not yet set a date to reopen. “We are in very active dialogue,” ECDC Director Iris Harlan said, “and are weighing multiple complex factors.”
Beth El Congregation of the South Hills echoed Temple Emanuel’s message in an email to its members. It also will continue to host virtual services and educational opportunities until it reopens its doors.
Likewise, at Ahavath Achim (The Carnegie Shul), “we felt the better part of valor was to hold off resuming services,” said its president Larry Block said. The Conservative synagogue has made no plans on when or how to reopen, but Block pointed out that “a number of us have taken a look at some approaches that we could take, if and when conditions allow for small groups to assemble again.”
All of the local Chabad Centers are following the advice of regional director Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, according to Rabbi Mendy Schapiro, director of Chabad of Monroeville. There will be a “little bit of a delay from the state phases. In other words, if the state’s in the yellow phase we will probably open a little bit after that in order to be confident in the health and wellbeing of the community.”
Accordingly, for now, Chabad of the South Hills remains closed.
“I think all of us are sort of feeling around in the dark,” said Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum, its director. While he is in no rush to be the first to open, he has begun working on the logistics of offering services, measuring floor space to ensure 25 people can attend services with the recommended space between parishioners.
Other suburban congregations, including Temple David and Parkway Jewish Center in Monroeville, Adat Shalom in Cheswick, and Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park, are all keeping their doors closed for now.
“There are just so many factors to consider in this decision,” said Shawn Brokos, the Federation’s director of community security. “I think the most important point is just because guidelines are telling us we can resume operations that doesn’t mean that that’s the best decision for all of our organizations.”
No matter the approach or what the guidelines might say, all of the organizations contacted by the Chronicle agree that the next big challenge will be the High Holidays.
As the Carnegie shul’s Block noted: “We used to experience fear and trembling because of being judged – now we feel it because of this virus.” PJC