Ultra Orthodox jewish men pray at the entrance to their home in Jerusalem April 3, 2020. following the government's decisions, in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

By Marcy Farrell
Editor, 5TJT.com

Guidelines for opening synagogues that were issued late last week by the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel seem to indicate that Orthodox synagogues will soon open their doors to regular minyanim soon.

In the Five Towns and Far Rockaway some rabbis were opening their minds, and congregants their yards, for previously unsanctioned “outdoor minyanim.”

“After assessing the level of overall risk in our specific community, many doctors now advise that outdoor minyanim under specific circumstances, within strict social distancing protocol (and adhering to NY State legal guidelines), could be safely conducted, and would not present any additional risk to the participants or the community,” said an unsigned letter being circulated. The letter writer states that the approval for outdoor minyanim only applies to the Five Towns/Far Rockaway community.

The guidelines allow minyanim in a place where all 10 men can clearly see each other. They must all be on the same side of the street. And only the residents of a house can be on the property during davening.

K’rias HaTorah is allowed, but only on one property, with all of the kibudim taken by members of that household. Individuals with underlying health issues, the immuno-compromised, the elderly, or anyone exhibiting COVID-like symptoms, may not participate in a minyan. Children under bar mitzvah should not join.

Chabad of the Five Towns shaliach Rabbi Wolowik at the embassy dedication in Yerushalayim

“There has been a consensus on the part of the collective rabbonim of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway that each rov now has the right to relax some of the absolute prohibitions that we have so far been promulgated regarding outdoor minyanim,” said Rabbi Yaakov Feitman, rav of Kehillas Bais Yehuda Tzvi in Cedarhurst.

“I have come to the conclusion that we can now allow ‘porch minyanim,’ but only under very strict guidelines,” Rabbi Feitman continued.

The decision was disseminated in an unsigned letter citing unnamed doctors who were consulted regarding the medical risks. Several rabbis, such as Feitman and Rabbi Zalman Wolowik of Chabad of the Five Towns, sent the letter with their weekly email, telling congregants they agreed with the decision.

But other prominent community rabbis continue to oppose any minyanim until the risk of contracting coronavirus is lower or medical intervention is available.

“Jewish law is clear that danger to life takes precedence over everything else except for three unusual circumstances. The sanctity of life supersedes all religious obligations,” said Young Israel of Woodmere Rabbi Rabbi Hershel Billet.

Rabbi Hershel Billet

“Indeed, protecting the sanctity of life is the overriding choice of Halacha. Hence the social distancing and all sanitary guidelines that we have been following is the expectation of Jewish law. That means no communal prayer services. That means no normal funeral services. That means no Kaddish. That means no Shiva visits. This determination is absolute and irrefutable.

“In my view, the services that have been conducted to date in defiance of the community are worthless. They are a violation of Jewish law. The Kaddish is of no value. It does not honor the soul of the deceased,” Rabbi Billet said.

Rabbi Aaron Feigenbaum, rav of the Irving Place Minyan, also disagreed with opening community minyanim.

“In consultation with many of our neighboring shuls, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, and leading infectious disease doctors in our area, and in accordance with the policy of the Orthodox Union released earlier today, we will not yet begin to relax the social distancing protocols we have been adhering to, even to daven in an outdoor a minyan,” Rabbi Feigenbaum said.

“I am hopeful that we will soon be able to begin organizing minyanim in a safe fashion. However, the medical guidance we have received, affirms that postponing the opening up of minyanim for a little longer, would be helpful for the health of our community.”

Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union on Friday released a 13-point guide for gradual and controlled reopening of synagogues under their supervision. The guide comes as some states are beginning to allow in-person religious services for the first time since restrictions meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus were imposed.

Synagogues across the country have been closed since mid-March, when states shuttered houses of worship and other gathering places in an effort to curb the spread of the disease. While some synagogues have begun holding services online, that practice is not compatible with Orthodox practices, so Orthodox Jews have not prayed as a community in months.

“The issuance of this guidance does NOT imply that any reopening should be done at this point,” the guide says in bold on its first page. Later, it says about the possible resumption of informal, backyard services, “Care must be taken to ensure that this not become a free-for-all.”

The guide instructs synagogues to wait at least two weeks after people are allowed to gather in indoor spaces in their communities, to make sure that coronavirus cases do not rise as restrictions are relaxed. New York State’s NY on PAUSE closure ends May 15.

The guide also spells out that people who are unwell or at high risk for coronavirus complications should not attend services even then. And it emphasizes that healthy, young people who are fearful of contracting the virus at synagogue should be considered exempt from obligations related to communal prayer.

When services do resume, according to the guide, congregants should wear masks, sit far apart and coordinate their attendance so spaces do not become crowded. “This will be a fundamental and difficult shift for many individuals and communities,” the guide says.

The haredi advocacy group Agudath Israel of America, released its own “roadmap” for safely resuming communal prayer in its communities. The roadmap includes limiting attendance to about half the number allowed by local governments and waiting for a “sustained downward trajectory of documented COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the Orthodox Jewish population” for 14 days.

The release of the guidelines may seem hasty. Just last week, OU executive vice president Rabbi Moshe Hauer told Dr. Anthony Fauci, who directs infectious disease research for the federal government, that the OU was advising congregations to wait two weeks past government opening dates to start returning to congregational prayer, to designate seats to make sure congregants sit apart and to stagger services to keep entry into the synagogues compatible with social distancing.

Even once communal prayer is reestablished, the guide says, Jews should resist the urge to synagogue-hop, or pray with different groups of people at different times, to minimize each person’s total number of contacts.

Orthodox communities must make and follow their own guidance, Agudath Israel’s document says, because observant Jews’ communal lifestyles don’t fit neatly into the frameworks that most states are using to guide reopening decisions.

“Governmental regulations were not designed to address the realities of someone davening at a bustling shul with multiple minyanim daily; attending kiddushim; large families having a Shabbos meal together; children from multiple families playing together — perhaps all on a single day!” the guide reads.

It continues in bold: “An abrupt return to all of this, while tempting, risks our communities suffering reversals of whatever gains were achieved during the difficult months of quarantine endured.”

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