Non-Orthodox congregations wrestle with the how and when of reopening
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COVID-19Welcoming back the community

Non-Orthodox congregations wrestle with the how and when of reopening

With their buildings closed since March, congregations are working on plans to open again for in-person services

A safety station set up at the entrance of Beth Shalom to help keep members healthy as they return to services (Photo by Jim Busis)
A safety station set up at the entrance of Beth Shalom to help keep members healthy as they return to services (Photo by Jim Busis)

Congregation Beth Shalom welcomed members back to its building for Shabbat services on Saturday, June 27, nearly three months after closing its doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order. At New Light Congregation, housed within Beth Shalom’s Squirrel Hill building, congregants returned for their first Shabbat services one day earlier.

Across the Pittsburgh area, non-Orthodox congregations are grappling with the idea of reopening their buildings to members for services and other events. Most local Orthodox congregations opened for services in early June.

In the last week, though, COVID-19 cases have surged in Allegheny County, the sharp increase coming a little more than two weeks after the county moved to the green phase.

Beth Shalom leaders decided to initially reopen their building for Shabbat services as a trial run, beginning June 27.

“We have not yet come to a conclusion about what we will do for subsequent Shabbatot,” explained Kenneth Turkewitz, the congregation’s interim executive director. “What we’ll do next Saturday, whether we’ll start to do Friday and Saturday, we have to evaluate that.”

Also still up in the air is the resumption of in-person daily minyans at the synagogue. For the last few months, daily minyans have been offered on Zoom.

“The rabbi and I touched on it briefly and haven’t revisited it yet,” Turkewitz said. “My personal opinion is, if we do that, we’ll have to continue offering it virtually as well and we’ll fail at getting a minyan for the in-person service, so it almost defeats the purpose. We still wouldn’t bring the Torah out on Mondays and Thursdays if we don’t have a minyan. I don’t think we’re up to that critical mass.”

Several blocks away, Temple Sinai’s leaders have not yet made the decision of when to resume in-person worship services.

The Reform congregation has created a committee, that “is taking a value-based, safe approach and cautiously beginning to look at how to have small groups come back,” according to Drew Barkley, the congregation’s executive director.

That might mean not hosting a Shabbat service but perhaps welcoming a family to hang a yahrzeit plaque while observing guidelines concerning face masks and social distancing. The congregation is also contemplating moving services from its smaller and more intimate sanctuary to its larger sanctuary and continuing to livestream its services for those not comfortable with coming into the building.

Joshua Lederer and William Taxay are chairing Sinai’s reopening committee. In a statement echoed by many congregations throughout the city, Taxay said the committee decided early on that “this is not something we are going to be a leader on. We have to take care of our congregants but at the same time, we want to keep people safe.”

The congregation has circled “mid-July” as a tentative date to begin testing the waters with some sort of “physical interaction at their facility,” according to Lederer.

Taxay summed up the committee’s thinking by explaining that the building itself is not required to carry out the Temple’s mission.

“If we can use the building safely, then we will,” he said. “If we can’t, we’re going to go about our mission and take care of our members, our staff and our clergy.”

Rodef Shalom Congregation, a Reform congregation in Shadyside, won’t be “announcing any dates until sometime next month,” according to Jonathan Rosenson, the congregation’s reopening committee’s chair.
Rosenson said that the hope is to begin opening in some fashion for certain types of activities but “a lot of that is going to be based on feedback we receive from the congregation.”

Rosenson explained that decision of when to reopen will affect not just religious services but a preschool, combined religious school, spiritual activities, as well as the three other congregations housed within the building: Bet Tikva, Congregation Dor Hadash and Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation. All three congregations have representatives on the 18-person reopening committee, as does the Joint Jewish Education Program, the early childhood center, congregants and rabbis and board members from Rodef Shalom.

Temple Emanuel of the South Hills also has formed a task force to consider all of the issues surrounding reopening.

“We know that whenever we are back to having some measure of in-person services, we will continue to stream,” explained Executive Director Leslie Hoffman. “We know that a portion of our community won’t be comfortable coming back immediately. We are going to be hybrid forever. This is a shift and includes continuing to offer virtual content such as Torah study moving forward.”

Accordingly, the Reform congregation in Mt. Lebanon is keeping the safety of its members at the forefront of the decision-making process.

The congregation did reopen its Early Childhood Development Center to a very small “morning only summer session” approximately one-fifth of its normal size, Hoffman said, noting that “that is very different than opening for services.”

Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, a Conservative congregation in Scott Township, created a reopening task force “about a month ago,” said newly installed president Susie Seletz. Rather than planning to meet in person, the congregation is continuing to offer a full array of virtual offerings in an effort to keep its congregants healthy. The task force is meeting weekly and has “split up into various subcommittees to address short range potential opportunities, long-term plans, logistical concerns that will have to be addressed before we return to the building, and High Holidays.”

Temple Ohav Shalom President Ken Eisner said the North Hills Reform congregation is operating under “one of the overriding principles of Judaism, pikuach nefesh, which means saving a life. That takes priority over everything, even some of the laws that are in the Torah.”

Judaism is uniquely qualified for challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic, Eisner said, because “so much of the religion is based on the home, whether it’s Shabbos dinners, or Chanukah or Passover or davening at home.”

The congregation is opening two four-day preschool camps beginning July 20 and 27, Eisner explained and said that on July 30 the Temple will hold a drive-in service which “is just like it sounds. The rabbi will probably be standing on a pickup truck and we’ll give FM receivers as well as a Shabbos bag with challah and grape juice in our parking lot.”

Members will also receive a survey meant to measure, “are people comfortable coming to the synagogue if there are 50 or 100 people? Are you comfortable if only the rabbi and cantorial intern can sing or if you’re required to wear a face mask or would you be more comfortable just Zooming the service from home?”

Once Conservative and Reform congregations begin to get a handle on reopening the next challenge awaits: what to do about the High Holidays.

“With somewhat of a pun intended, we’ll have to get the temperature of where people stand,” said Eisner. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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