Let’s celebrate when the shuls reopen at last

'|We will be on the road to rebuilding Jewish communal life. That should be a huge celebration.'

June 25, 2020 20:25

As life inches back to normality, shuls are now beginning to seriously consider ways in which they can safely reopen. No-one is under any illusions that this is a simple task.

Are the buildings themselves capable of providing a Covid-secure environment? Will people feel confident enough to return? And will this new shul experience even remotely resemble the one loved and respected by so many regulars, week in week out, over many years?

The dilemmas and concerns are real. Yet, I think that there is a pathway towards making this whole process much easier. There are two critical elements we need to establish now, even before shuls begin to open. And, if these two factors are put into practice, we may even look back on this time as one in which we transformed our communities for the better.

The first is a sense of positivity. We need to be openly and unashamedly enthusiastic about returning to shul, despite the inevitable restrictions that will need to be imposed during the short to medium term. When the first Premier League matches were played behind closed doors after 100 days of absence, hundreds of thousands of people were able to celebrate the fact that football had returned, rather than focusing on the hollow sound of empty stadia, or the endless restrictions placed upon the players. Shul must be the same.

Yes, it will look different. There may not be kiddushim and there may well be face masks. But we will be on the road to rebuilding Jewish communal life. That should be a huge celebration.

When one shul re-started services in Cincinnati, Ohio a few weeks ago, under strict guidelines, people danced (socially distanced) through the streets to shul. When we can return, we should do the same — if not literally, then in our hearts and minds.

People have been counting down the days until they can get a haircut or order a pint. If we truly care about Jewish communal life, it is now time to count down the days until we can return to shul. Let us be secure in our approach, always safe and always legal. But let us also be positive and celebrate in whatever way we can.

The second element is a heartfelt call for new demographics to show communal responsibility. A significant part of the nervousness around restarting shul services is based on the undeniable fact that in many communities, the regular “minyan men” for weekday and even Shabbat services are of an age which makes them more vulnerable to coronavirus.

Others have specific health conditions which require them to shield for their own safety. The last thing anyone wants is for people to come to shul if they feel unsafe. They must not feel under any pressure to do so.

But if that is the case, then for shuls to reopen, others need to step up to the plate. Younger and healthier members of the community have a duty to be there, particularly during the early weeks and months, to ensure that there is a minyan.

Come July, if you feel comfortable going to a restaurant, hairdresser, or shopping centre, 
consider supporting your local shul when it reopens. Others may be desperate to come, yet currently unable — you can do your part to help your community get back on its feet by being there to represent them.

I realise that channelling Lord Kitchener — “Your shul needs You” — is a well-trodden, and some would say overused, rabbinic path. But I realised how critical this issue was after a recent conversation with a rabbinic colleague. He described how he would dearly love to re-open his shul as soon as possible, but the simple facts on the ground are that his daily minyan consists of some men in their 80s and that the younger members of his community are pretty much disengaged from the ritual elements of shul life. Left with no choice, he could not see much chance of his shul re-opening in earnest anytime soon.

That situation cannot be allowed to replicate itself across the wider community. To their endless credit, huge numbers of people have volunteered to support those who are vulnerable during this time. Now, together with a sense of positivity over the re-opening of our shuls, we need to see that volunteering spirit shine through again.

We have done our best to ensure that our people have stayed strong. Now is the time to do our part to ensure that our communal life can regrow, regenerate, and even strengthen itself. That would truly be a reason to dance through the streets to shul.


Yoni Birnbaum is the rabbi of Hadley Wood United Synagogue


June 25, 2020 20:25

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