I could never have imagined that shul attendance would put lives in danger. Yet it now appears likely that some of the victims of Covid-19 may have become infected with the virus at Purim services and parties in our synagogues, some two weeks before the government declared a lockdown. As the deadly pandemic was spreading across the world, most of us did not yet fully understand how Coronavirus was transmitted, nor appreciate the full extent of the tragedy that would unfold.
We have always taken pride in our shuls being a veritable home away from home; the heartbeat of our closely-knit, vibrant communities. But in the fight against Covid 19 our greatest strength as a community has become our greatest weakness.
Jewish practice sanctifies and elevates the seemingly mundane. Our precious religious spaces are used for all manner of activity. In our shuls we pray and sing in close proximity to one another. We greet friends and family, we schmooze and chat with people of all ages and health backgrounds. We learn together and, of course, we eat together. The Hebrew term beit knesset - literally, ‘house of gathering’ - says it all.
Tragically, everything we know and love about shul facilitates the spread of Covid-19.
As we moved into the second phase of the pandemic - the lockdown phase - our communities responded with breathtaking creativity, agility and compassion. Within a matter of days, communal support networks were established and scaled up to meet demand. Virtual celebrations, learning programmes and social events were rolled out. Above all, the government’s guidelines were being carefully adhered to. It was inspirational. As is often the case, I suspect that the heroes at the centre of all this - the rabbis and rebbetzens - will never receive the credit they deserve.
It is difficult for anyone who is not a rabbi to truly understand what it is like to have to officiate at three or four funerals in a single day; to find time in between them to comfort the families of those who lie in intensive care, to officiate at virtual shiva houses, to guide a family through the enforced cancellation of their simcha, to lead an online learning event and to be in touch with members who are vulnerable or alone, while dealing with the same domestic pressures and health worries that everyone else has had. I have no words to adequately express my admiration and thanks for their selfless and impactful sacred work.
As we now look ahead to the third phase, the slow rebuilding of community life, there are several principles which must underpin our thinking.
The first, which must be our overriding guiding principle, is the sanctity of human life. We have a responsibility, above all else, not to take any risk with our own lives or with the lives of others.
The second is that faith communities in this country do not all behave or worship in the same way. Different faith communities must apply the government’s advice in a suitable manner at their own pace, so that it is safe in their own context.
The Jewish community may need, in some respects, to hold back for a time, even if guidance would permit going further - indeed we may have a religious obligation to do so. When the government determines that faith communities may return to congregational worship in some form, we will have to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Whilst we desperately want to rush back to our shuls and communal buildings, that deep desire must be tempered by the knowledge that our settings could quickly become a hub for the virus to reappear. We must proceed with extreme caution, taking account of a whole range of factors, including the intensely social atmosphere in and around our communities, age profile and availability of space, as well as the evolving national picture.
In a Jewish context, no two countries and no two settings are the same. What works in one might not work in another. This will apply to the full range of venues and spaces where our life-cycle events take place.
Third, many people are anxious to ‘get back to normal’, but this will be a phased process of many months. We will not be able to open our synagogues fully for a long time. We will need to meticulously consider which activities to run, who can attend and what the maximum number will be. Events such as Kiddushim may not be possible for some time.
The prospect of limiting numbers is the very antithesis of what shul life is about, and not one I relish. But, in these circumstances, it is likely to be what is required for a time, in order to give effect to the overwhelming priority we must give to pikuach nefesh - the protection of life.
Finally, we are all learning as we go. Our communities are doing a fantastic job to respond in the most challenging of circumstances. It is possible that mistakes will be made. If they are, let them be made out of an abundance of caution and respect for the sanctity of life, rather than the opposite.
In Kabbalistic writings, deep connections are drawn between Purim and Yom Kippur, explaining why the Torah calls the holiest day of the year ‘Yom Kippurim’, which can also mean ‘a day like Purim’. Unknown to us, Purim services this year inadvertently created a health hazard with tragic consequences. While it is too soon for us to know what guidance will be in place when the High Holydays arrive, one thing is for sure: This time, we cannot allow our holiest day of the year, or any other, to be a day like Purim.