Should synagogues introduce vaccine passports?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi debate contemporary Jewish issues


Question: Should synagogues consider introducing vaccine passports to make it safer for members to attend?

Rabbi Brawer: The simple answer is yes. Anything that reinforces health and safety is to be encouraged.

I appreciate that not every shul-goer is going to see this in the same way. Furthermore, given that many shuls strive to be welcoming and inclusive, checking passports for entry can feel regressive and exclusionary.

However, as Ecclesiastes aptly noted “Everything has a season, and a time for every matter under the heavens.” Among his fourteen examples of polarities, he lists “A time to embrace and a time to pull back from embracing”. A raging pandemic is not the time to embrace.

For the sake of the greater good, it can be necessary to temporarily exclude individuals from participating in communal prayer if they cannot demonstrate that they have been vaccinated. Given the relative speed with which the population is getting vaccinated, such exclusion would appear to be short term. 

In addition to ensuring a safe space for those who do come to shul, it may have the additional advantage of coaxing those who may otherwise not get vaccinated to do so. While the choice to get vaccinated is ultimately a personal one, communal organisations should do all in their power to nudge the widest number of its members or constituents to follow public health advice.  

Temporary exclusion from shul need not mean exclusion from communal life and every effort should be made to reach out to those who are still waiting to receive their vaccinations to ensure they feel valued and missed. And when they do finally show up, having been vaccinated, it might be valuable to treat them to a welcoming back ceremony as they resume their place in their physical community. 

It may still feel unfair to the temporarily excluded and that feeling is not misplaced. The Torah recounts how in the second year after the exodus from Egypt there were some who, due to no fault of their own, found themselves in a state of ritual impurity, effectively excluding them from the most important of communal experiences, participating in the paschal sacrifice and meal. 

The news did not go down well. The affected individuals approached Moses and Aaron arguing, “Why should we be withheld from offering the Lord’s sacrifice at its fixed time in the midst of all the Israelites?”

God’s answer to this reasonable complaint is the festival of Pesach Sheni, a month later, affording all those who were excluded the first time around, a second chance. Those who patiently wait to be vaccinated before rejoining communal life will, hopefully before long, be given another chance to do just that.

Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer executive director of Hillel, Tufts University

Rabbi Romain: This is a difficult question (which I guess is why you asked it) as it pits two important principles against each other: that synagogues should be open to all, and that members who attend should be safe from harm.

Do we deny entry to those without vaccine passports and therefore introduce discrimination into our congregational life; or do we insist on having such documentation, prioritising health over morality?

Still, this would not be the first time we have edited who can or cannot enter our communities. In biblical times, those who had leprosy had to live outside the main encampment until they were healed (Leviticus 13.46), clearly putting the safely of the majority ahead of the feeling of isolation of the person who was ill.

In later times, the cherem was used to ban anyone from social contact, including entry to the synagogue, if they were found guilty of some misdemeanour. Here, too, it is evident that shul attendance was not seen as unconditional. It was a privilege that could be taken away when circumstances demanded it.

In our situation today, we have two concerns: first, that all who come should be safe from Covid19, especially as many are over 50 years old and in the more vulnerable category.

Second, we also want to avoid people feeling it is better to stay away lest they risk catching it through contact with those who are unvaccinated.

There is a school of thought that says we should urge worshippers not to worry about certification, but to trust in God, but I suspect God prefers us to take steps to protect ourselves, rather than rely on miracles.

In the tussle between principle and pragmatics, I reluctantly side with the latter and would welcome certification for places of worship. This might not be needed for everyday shul events, when it is relatively easy to have some form of social distancing, but will be especially relevant for the High Holy Days and the mass gathering that is normal then.

However, we should also take care to minimise the number of people excluded, such as those who cannot have the jab for medical reasons and ask them for a lateral flow test instead. This would also apply to those who had not yet been offered the vaccine, so they are not penalised.

Prayer is a universal right, but the right to pray in company is not.

Rabbi Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue

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