As governments look for ways to safely reopen businesses and other activities shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic, Agudath Israel of America released a detailed set of guidelines for those in search of a safe roadmap to restart tefillah b’tzibbur and open the doors of shuls.
Not dissimilar to those designed by federal and local authorities, the guidance is laid out in phases that can begin after a consistent downward trajectory of infection, and steadily progresses to allow for larger minyanim and greater normalization of activities. Yet, as the nation is quickly learning, normal is a relative term; even the most advanced stage of the guidelines recommends maintaining six feet between mispallelim. Earlier stages sketch a picture of very small and highly regulated minyanim with attendees wearing masks.
Even in the topsy-turvy reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, Klal Yisrael has maintained both its diversity of opinions and dedication to the sacred obligation of tefillah. As such, many communities are already in vastly different stages of minyan reopening, with some still davening b’yechidus in their homes, others on porches with neighbors, and, in some places, in organized outdoor minyanim or in a wide gamut of modified shul settings.
Taking this reality into account, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah took upon itself to compose a comprehensive document for kehillos looking for their guidance on the matter, which would be based on the joint recommendations of Rabbanim and leading medical experts.
“We understand that Rabbanim and communities will be making decisions based on local facts and needs, but for those that seek the guidance of the Moetzes we felt there was a need to help those Rabbanim through what is very uncharted territory,” said Rabbi Yaakov Robinson, Mara d’Asra of Khal Mikor Chaim in Chicago and leader of the Agudah’s Midwest Vaad Harabbanim, to Hamodia.
As officials developed legal pathways towards limited gatherings that would allow for more minyanim to function, the Moetzes held several remote discussions on how to best direct communities. They ultimately appointed a sub-committee made up of several Rabbanim from different parts of the country, together with expert virologists and epidemiologists, who produced the detailed recommendations in a five-page document.
“These lay down a baseline of reasonable steps to take and are the result of dozens of hours of deliberations between doctors and Rabbanim,” said Rabbi Robinson, who was on the committee that crafted the guidelines. “We understand that many kehillos will be making adjustments as they see fit, but people should realize how much has gone into this, in terms of the medical soundness and halachic and practical issues. We’re not shooting from the hip.”
Before the first phase of the guidelines can be implemented, a three-part prerequisite is that: government allows for small, organized religious gatherings, there is a two week consistent downward trend in local COVID-19 cases, and the joint approval of the community’s Rabbanim.
Should these criteria be met, phase one allows for minyanim of 12 to 14 attendees, ideally maintaining eight feet of distance between each other, preferably outdoors, 10 if circumstances require that the groups meet indoors, which produces significantly higher risks of infection. While outdoor options are recommended at this early stage, those involved in crafting the document felt it was necessary to provide options that would suit settings where that would not prove practical or lead to other impasses. Additionally, the number of attendees chosen reflects the minimum that Rabbanim felt could practically make up a cohesive minyan. An additional condition, which will likely be re-enforced by practical concerns of kehillos looking to enforce social distancing, is that mispallelim designate a certain minyan and shul that they will regularly attend, not dividing themselves between different batei medrash as many are accustomed to doing.
Before moving on to a more permissive phase, community leaders should wait to see if the next two weeks continue to produce a period of positive metrics of the virus’ recession. This follows guidelines being worked on for the opening of businesses, which predicate more advanced stages on evidence that a loosening of restrictions has not led to a resurgence of infection. The Agudah guidelines also urge Rabbanim to look not only at citywide statistics, but to consult with local Hatzolah members and physicians to learn more about the realities of infection within the local Jewish community.
Phase two allows for indoor minyanim to be held as an equally endorsed option, with 20 to 30 participants with only six feet of distance between them, but not allowing rooms to be filled beyond 50 percent capacity — irrespective of the shul’s size.
Phase three allows for groups of up to 75, up to 70 percent of shul capacity, and four to six feet of distancing. Recommended numbers of attendees were designed by medical experts, based on models that project risks of disease spread.
In stages one and two, mispallelim are asked to wear masks at davening — which the guidelines advise shuls to make available. Through all three stages, kiddushim and other activities that challenge social distancing and elongate the time spent in shul should be eliminated, and those deemed high risk are advised to consult a doctor and a Rav before attending the tefillos at all. The guidelines also instruct that “high touch” surfaces such as doorknobs should be regularly disinfected, and that people should bring their own siddur from home. Because the risk of contagion rises with the amount of time spent together, the guidelines suggest that shuls consider asking mispallelim to daven the earlier sections of Shacharis at home and to begin davening in shul at Barchu.
“None of these stages automatically kick in. Moving along has to be done with a careful eye to the facts on the ground, reports of cases and hospitalizations, and sound medical input,” Mr. Avrohom Weinstock, Agudath Israel’s Chief of Staff and Associate Director of Education Affairs, told Hamodia. “What the Rabbanim and medical professionals designed, at the behest of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, reflects our goal to find a safe way to get back into our shuls safely as soon as possible. They acknowledge that we can’t wait for zero cases but try to strike a very difficult balance.”
The phased approach also allows for kehillos to roll backwards in the event that the rate of COVID cases in the community begin to increase, chas v’shalom. The guidelines encourage Rabbanim to keep abreast of the current health situation and to confer with local medical experts to ensure that decisions take accurate facts into account.
“It goes without saying that the only reason we have this sense of urgency is because of our chashivus for tefillah b’tzibbur, but at the same time, unfortunately, our communities have learned close up that this is a real issue of sakanas nefashos,” said Mr. Weinstock. “This is not a debate over whether tefillah b’tzibbur or pikuach nefesh is more important, like the one going on in the political arena of whether public health or the economy should take precedence. Our goal was to enable processes to start again, after government allows it, and to determine how can we do it safely, by looking at things from a halachic and medical perspective. For example, we don’t need 30 people for a minyan; let’s start with 12 and watch to ensure cases do not rise. Krias HaTorah presents a real risk, with several people kissing and crowding around a Torah while one person leins out loud. If there was a way that the one person can receive all aliyos and lein, that would significantly reduce risk. We are all equally eager to get back in our shuls, but we have already seen second waves of infection in places that opened, like Singapore and South Korea. All of this is, by its nature, very new. Because there is much we don’t know, this has to be done with seichel.”
In an effort to further minimize the inherent risks, shuls are encouraged to look for ways to reduce the time that Shabbos tefillos run, without compromising the quality of davening, like eliminating drashos and singing — which in and of itself multiplies the risk of disease transfer through the droplets emitted.
Rabbi Robinson said that in many instances, given the realities of a shul’s functions, in order to maintain a safe environment for mispallelim, it will be necessary to implement more rigid practices than those technically allowed by authorities.
“We are being stricter than the government, not out of paranoia but based on the very different facts that we are dealing with,” he said. “The risks of spending an extended amount of time together three times a day, seven days a week, are much higher than passing by somebody in a store; that’s something that we have to take into account.”
The guidelines also include practical suggestions for maintaining social distancing during Krias haTorah, recommending that in phase one, the baal korei should be the only one handling the sefer Torah, receiving all the aliyos and performing hagbah. There are various opinions among Rabbanim as to how to best deal with aliyos during the pandemic, and some have favored allowing different olim to make brachos at a distance from the sefer Torah. A particularly creative suggestion has been to place a second sefer Torah on a separate table and allow the oleh to read from it together with the baal korei. In phase two, olim are encouraged to prepare and read their own aliyos, eliminating the need for a regular baal korei, and in phase three they can proceed normally. As with all sections of the guidelines, all participants must be entirely symptom free for at least two weeks before taking part in tefillos or Krias HaTorah.
The guidelines stipulate that minyanim should be held under the auspices of a Rav and that gabba’im should be appointed to ensure that the rules established are being followed in ways that conform to halachah and health concerns.
In addition to the myriad of technical challenges of crafting modifications to tefillah b’tzibbur that address the realities of the pandemic, the inherently social nature of a shul is not the least among these.
“We can sit down and design ways that a davening should run, but the biggest challenge is still going to be human nature,” said Rabbi Robinson. “It’s unnatural for people to stay away from each other, and the last thing any Rav wants to do is to have to confront a person in the shul who is doing things that might be normal under regular circumstances, but that right now endanger others.”
Another particularly challenging aspect of implementing the guidelines is the reference that a community’s Rabbanim agree to uniform standards by which to conduct minyanim. The practicality of such an approach is inherently inverse to the size of the community in question.
“Smaller communities that are more cohesive will likely have an easier time jointly implementing guidelines,” said Mr. Weinstock. “At the same time, the guidelines were designed to have broad applicability and use, based on the regional reality.”
As schools, yeshivos, and simchos present less-easily-manageable social distancing challenges, shuls will likely be the first major aspect of Jewish communal life that will be able to resume under legal and medical compliance. As such, the Agudah chose to develop its guidelines for kehillos first, but is in the process of developing guidelines for chinuch institutions and other activities as well.
“Baruch Hashem, Klal Yisrael’s yetzer hara, so to speak, is an eagerness to get back to davening in shul and to opening yeshivos,” said Mr. Weinstock. “At the same time, all this eagerness presents obvious risks. We have gotten a lot of questions about how our kehillos can proceed, and the truth is that the law and medical realities in every city and state are different. Most states have not yet allowed shuls to open, and our goal was to produce a framework for planning purposes, before it’s needed. It’s not so practical for every Rav to say, ‘let me get a few world-class infectious disease doctors together to figure out how I can safely open my shul,’ so we did our best to create a national framework which would do part of the work for them.”