What Does “Reopening” Even Mean? Our Experience Reopening the Sanctuary Doors

By Michael Safra, Hal Ossman, Steve Rothenberg

A few weeks into this pandemic, a basic fact of reopening became clear. The decision to close our synagogues would be considerably easier than the decision to reopen.

It didn’t help that the discussions on the national, state, and local levels were all framed in the same polarized template that seems to define every other important discussion today. Should we open or remain closed? Will we be safe or irresponsible? Of course, those are the wrong questions. The questions we asked were: How can we best serve our congregants needs? What do the stages of reopening look like? And how do we open our doors safely? We report here that by convening congregants with multiple backgrounds and experiences, we were able to put together a plan that allowed us to gradually and safely open our doors to groups ranging from our pre-school children to seniors attending Yizkor services on Yom Kippur.

Our congregational leaders established a Roadmap to Reopening Task Force, which included physicians, infectious disease specialists, lawyers with expertise on reopening businesses, and lay and professional synagogue leaders. We divided congregational activities into core service areas that could be determined separately: worship services, schools, programs, administrative offices, and facility rentals. It quickly became clear that the initial priorities would be returning to live worship and reopening our schools. While we understood it would be a while before we could unlock the doors of the synagogue and return to business as usual (and we are still waiting), we have seen success in reinstating live worship services, including on the High Holidays. Here is how we did it.

When we were first beginning to think about the High Holidays in May, Montgomery County (Maryland) still limited gatherings to ten people. We were dealing with the reality, like everyone else, that the High Holidays would look very different this year. While we understood that many of our congregants were going to be more comfortable experiencing the holidays from home, we suspected there were also significant audiences who were going to want to come to the synagogue to pray if it, was possible. Would this be possible safely? The professionals on our Task Force believed that with proper protocols and planning in place, the answer was yes.

First, we took a hard look at our spaces, both indoor and outside. A team consisting of a sports and event architect, the facilities manager, and leaders of our House and Grounds committee determined capacity possibilities in socially distant “pod-style” seating map. In a normal year, we would welcome 1800 worshippers into our main sanctuary. Depending on county restrictions, we could invite between 69 and 138 “family units” into this space with 10-15 feet between worshippers.

After evaluating the various outdoor spaces, we determined that we could host upwards of 150 people (depending on the size of family units) in our large parking lot; family “units” would be invited to sit in designating parking spaces with an empty space (10 feet) between each unit. Cars would be parked in another area of the lot, and everyone would be asked to bring their own chairs. The size of this space made tenting impossible. The rain plan options were that people would get wet, a service would be cancelled, or it would be moved to the virtual space.

Our next step was to survey the congregation. We wanted to know how many members would actually sign up to attend in-person services if they were offered. We also wanted to gauge how many might be attracted to non-traditional, shorter experiences that might be offered outside. And finally, we wanted a better sense of what aspects of the service people found most compelling, so we could be sure to include those things if services had to be abbreviated to conform to new pandemic norms. We had already decided there would be no Torah procession and congregants would not be invited to open the ark; but what if it turned out that these aspects of the service ranked as most compelling to the congregation? We would have to be creative.

More than 550 people responded to our survey (out of a membership of 1,100 households). Approximately 25 percent indicated that they wanted to attend services if permitted, and another 25 percent indicated that they had already made up their minds to stay home and participate virtually this year. The rest were interested in creative options but still quite unsure. A few comments expressed disappointment that we were even contemplating holding in-person services; others wondered why we couldn’t just open up the entire building and run services as usual. The vast majority expressed support for the way our leadership was working through the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic.

With our survey results in hand, a leadership team consisting of our clergy, executive director, education director, communications director, and administrative team met to begin formulating plans. Some decisions were easy. Congregants would be asked to bring their own tallit and kippah; people would have the option to borrow or purchase a mahzor, but we would not be placing them on seats and allowing different people to use them for different services; masks would be required; and the Task Force would develop protocols for everything from how to read the Torah safely to how often to clean and sanitize the rest rooms.

The actual services were more complicated. Our usual format had been to bring the entire congregation together for the morning service until the Torah reading, and then to divide into three separate services. For this year, we decided to hold only the two biggest services, and they would be completely separate, with staggered start and end times and separate entrances to the two sides of the building from the outside. Certain prayers could be omitted in order to shorten services, which would allow for the possibility of afternoon services and programs in an empty parking lot. The shofar blowers inside the sanctuary were tested for the Covid-19 coronavirus before the holiday and stood as far away from the congregation as possible when sounding their “masked” shofarot. We created other opportunities for people to hear shofar at an outdoor family service in the afternoon and before Tashlikh.

Congregants were asked to rank their ticket preference by service and we promised to be as accommodating as possible. Only services in the main sanctuary would be live streamed, but we decided to engage a production company to enhance the viewing experience for those who would be participating from home. We decided to offer multiple opportunities to recite Yizkor in person, and discussions and learning opportunities that might normally have taken place at the same time as services were moved to the week between the holidays via Zoom.

As we moved toward the High Holidays, we introduced in-person services gradually. Initially, 12-15 people were invited on Shabbat – 10 people to make a minyan, plus a couple extra in case someone woke up not feeling well or some other unforeseen circumstance arose. All participants were asked to come at the start of services to help make the minyan, and also to make it easier to enforce our protocols and rules.

Still today, every person entering the building has to complete a medical screening questionnaire; if someone forgets the questionnaire, our non-Jewish security guard asks the questions and completes the form so that Jewish worshippers do not have to violate Shabbat. Masks are required, and directional arrows are placed on the floor to keep people from accidentally bumping into each other. Common touch points such as doors are left open and assigned single directional traffic. All the movable partitions in our main sanctuary are fully opened to the function halls beyond to increase the volume of space and further dilute the air. Seating is apportioned in socially distant pods that ranged from one to five seats, depending on the row. Each seat is preassigned to all attendees with prayer books placed only at those seats; after each service, those prayer books are “cycled out” for several weeks and replaced by other ones.

We ask congregants to avoid socializing within the synagogue and remain at appropriate social distances before during and after the services. Initially, we were anxious about having to enforce our rules, particularly with regard to masks, so we instituted a “community share” model. The only way we could offer this service to our community would be if everyone abided by our rules, regardless of how silly they might seem. We were heartened by the cooperation of both members and guests. Our capacities grew from ten to twenty, and after a couple months we were ready to host upwards of 50 guests for services with a bar or bat mitzvah (50 guests amounted to about 15-20 family “units”).

In the end, fewer people requested tickets for in-person services than we anticipated. We did not have to turn anyone away, and those who had indicated early on that their holiday experience would not be the same if they could not enter the building felt really good. On average, about 100 people participated in our main indoor services over the High Holidays, with smaller groups at new alternative services we offered. In all, we conducted 19 in-person services, both indoors and outdoors. In addition, over 8,000 unique IP addresses joined our live stream services and those computers logged in over 25,000 times to the live stream.

Now over a month after the High Holidays, and no reported COVID-19 positive tests from in-person services, our Roadmap to Repoening Task Force continues to meet monthly to evaluate new issues and consider changing guidelines (i.e. singing). For the time being, our priority is working with b’nai mitzvah families to ensure that their celebrations will be as meaningful as possible in the socially distant context. Looking towards the future, we imagine expanding service capacity as demand increases, allowing for certain mission-appropriate facility rentals, expanding office hours, and eventually opening our doors during the week to welcome all who want to enter.

In many ways, it still feels that “reopening” is a long way off, but we feel confident that by taking the measured approach we have described, we can continue to serve our community and its spiritual needs even as the impact of COVID-19 continues to rise and fall. We wish everyone continued health and safety as we navigate this unprecedented time for our synagogues and communities.

The authors are the Senior Rabbi, Executive Director, and President of B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, MD. www.bnaiisraelcong.org.