This story was updated on Wednesday, April 21, to update Congregation Beth Shalom’s reopening plans.
As more of the Pittsburgh Jewish community is vaccinated, local congregational leaders are cautiously optimistic that, after a year of online programming, they will soon be able to open for in-person services and other events.
Still, Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park doesn’t “want to rush it,” said Stacy Siegal, chair of that congregation’s COVID response committee.
“We thought we’d be reopened by the summer and then Allegheny County had a surge,” she said. The committee, which includes a doctor who is part of UPMC’s COVID response team, decided it was better to wait.
As vaccination rates increase, local non-Orthodox congregations are wrestling not only with the question of when to reopen, but also how and for whom. Orthodox congregations in the Pittsburgh area resumed in-person services months ago, adhering to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, including mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing.
Rodef Shalom’s Shadyside building not only serves the congregation’s members, but also provides space to several other organizations, including Congregation Dor Hadash, The Fanny Edel Falk Laboratory School and Tree of Life Congregation.
“We have seen, over the last couple of weeks, a lot of our tenants are feeling increasingly comfortable in the building,” said Matthew Falcone, Rodef Shalom’s senior vice president. “We’re starting to put a lot more thought into b’nai mitzvahs in particular. We’re seeing that families are increasingly comfortable coming back in — and have a burning desire to do that.”
While Rodef Shalom’s leadership has worked with families to allow the maximum number of in-person guests for b’nai mitzvahs while maintaining safety protocols, Falcone said, the synagogue has not yet held in-person Shabbat services for the congregation at-large.
Likewise, b’nai mitzvah celebrants have been allowed into Temple Sinai’s Squirrel Hill building, according to Drew Barkley, the congregation’s executive director.
“We’ve limited the number of people who can attend to 10,” he said. “About half of our b’nai mitzvahs have been in the building and they’ve been successful. The ones at home have been very successful, as well.”
Temple Sinai’s leaders have not yet decided when the congregation will resume regular Shabbat services in person.
“We are still just monitoring the situation, still taking a wait-and-see attitude, trying to take the time to be safe and protective of our community,” Barkley said.
Temple Emanuel of South Hills also has not yet welcomed members back for regular services. During online Shabbat services on April 16, Senior Rabbi Aaron Meyer said he hopes the congregation will re-open for in-person services by late May.
“We’re finalizing our COVID-19 protocols needed to allow this to happen,” executive director Leslie Hoffman said.
Beth Shalom Congregation in Squirrel Hill remained open during the pandemic, with several tenants using the building daily. There are no immediate plans to welcome members back in the building for services, but the congregation has ordered a large tent that it will use for outdoor Shabbat services.
“We did that last summer and early fall and had outdoor services with 50 people,” Executive Director Ken Turkewitz said, adding that preregistration will be required to attend those services and the congregation will provide additional security. Other safety protocols are still being reviewed by the congregation.
Ohav Shalom’s Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt said that the warm weather will allow his congregation to host more outside activities as well.
“We have begun to, again, do outdoor activities with the religious school because the weather is getting better,” Weisblatt said. “We are planning on the last day, pending the weather, to be outside and then to worship outdoors. As we get into the summer, we’ll look at where things stand and, if we’re able, do a phased reopening.”
Temple David in Monroeville has May circled on its calendar, according to Reena Goldberg, president of the congregation.
“We’re kind of gradually taking it to the next level,” she said. “Starting in May, we’re going to have a few indoor services. Not every service — we’re trying to ease into it gradually and make sure that we can work through all of the logistics.”
Temple David has started readying the building, Goldberg said.
“The house committee has already set up the sanctuary to block every other row,” she said. “They’ve put up some signs and ribbons to space people out and the ushers have been instructed to verbally explain that you should sit with your household and have two seats between you and the next couple or family.”
Temple Sinai’s Barkley said members understand that congregational leaders are working to find the best solutions given the current information.
“People seem to have accepted the fact that we’re being very cautious and that we’re continually monitoring things with everyone’s best interests at heart,” he said.
Most congregational leaders were reluctant to discuss High Holiday plans, but all who were interviewed said that services will likely be similar to those of last year — with, perhaps, more opportunities for in-person events, even if some of those might take place outside.
Last year, Rodef Shalom welcomed some congregants into the building — with social distancing — most notably for its Yizkor services, according to Falcone.
“We’re anticipating a bit more of that for this year,” he said.
But hybrid programming is here to stay, said Temple Emanuel’s Hoffman.
“The caveat is, we’ll always be streaming, we’ll always have a virtual option, even when we’re back in person,” she said.
Temple David’s Goldberg agreed: “It’s a nice option, especially when it’s snowing.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.