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Five Towns synagogues restart in-person services

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With houses of worship being able to reopen to 25 percent capacity through Phase Two of the economy’s reawakening during the ebbing of the coronavirus pandemic, churches, mosques and synagogue are opening their doors, but gradually.

Rabbi Zalman Wolowik, the Chabad of the Five Towns’ director, said the Jewish congregation opened for services on June 10, the first day of Phase Two, while maintaining the New York state mandated social distancing. 

“Due to the great demand and excitement, we staggered times for services, in order to accommodate as many as possible in a legal fashion, with a registry for busy times such as Shabbat and Sunday, and all must wear a mask when they are at Chabad,” Wolowik said, adding that holding services outside on the Cedarhurst-based Chabad’s lawn was a “temporary fix, but not the way it was meant to be.”

“There’s a lot discussed in the code of Jewish law going back thousands of years about the sanctity of a designated place for services, a synagogue, with a permanent setting for the Torah scrolls, and a room that creates and enhances the atmosphere of services, praying together, singing many designated parts of the services together, reading the Torah in the confines of a synagogue is the setting that we have had as a tradition for centuries, that way it limits distractions and enables focus, it also enhances camaraderie amongst the congregants,” he said, calling it a “a very warm, exciting and uplifting atmosphere.”

Congregation Sons of Israel congregants in Woodmere were able to attend Shabbat services on June 20. “At 25 percent capacity, our sanctuary/ballroom can accommodate 200 people,” Rabbi Bruce Ginsburg said. “Other than on the High Holidays and special occasions such as a bar or bat mitzvah, we don’t see those numbers, so staggered services are unnecessary at this time.” 

Ginsburg said that the synagogue is applying several precautionary measures: registering congregants in advance to comply with governmental tracking requirements; everyone in the synagogue, including the rabbi and cantor, must wear masks; congregants will be distanced from each other in an eight-foot radius; the cantor will be positioned directly in front of the Ark with his back to the congregation; and congregants are being encouraged to bring their own prayer books and tallits (prayer shawls).

“While I have been in regular contact with my congregants over the last three months via phone, email, snail-mail, and daily adult education classes conducted over Zoom, there is nothing like the experience of praying together in the actual space of our magnificent, historic sanctuary,” Ginsburg said.

Despite the enthusiasm of many to get out of the house, Temple Beth El in Cedarhurst is taking a more deliberate approach to the reopening. “While we would want very much to restart in-person services, after conversations with our members we believe that it is premature for us to do so based on the age and needs of our congregants,” Rabbi Claudio Kupchik said, adding that temple members are being served through what he called a full slate of online services and activities, “that keep our members engaged and active without risk of spreading or catching the virus. It has been reported that due to the singing involved, in-person religious services are a high risk activity for the participants during the pandemic.”

The preservation of life and health is a vital tenet of Jewish tradition, Kupchik said. We don’t need to rush into restarting in-person services but we intend to do so very carefully,” he said. “We have organized a task force to plan and subsequently execute our procedures for reopening. We don’t have a target date yet — we’ll know ‘when it feels right,’ but we certainly hope to have a few services underway before the High Holidays.”