British Jews take their first, tentative steps into shul

Rabbis make shul return ‘as beautiful as possible’


For retired hospital consultant Dr David Lewis, returning to shul this week was a surreal but comforting experience, reflecting the views of many regular congregants as services in places of worship resumed.

Recovering from coronavirus had made Dr Lewis, 72, more confident about attending services at Mill Hill Synagogue, even if he struggled to recognise fellow shul-goers in their face coverings.

“I know that some authorities think you can catch it again,” he told the JC. “But I went back because I’ve had it before, the incidence of coronavirus in London has fallen quite dramatically — and also because we had taken very great precautions.”

Given that seven friends had died from the virus, he was “grateful to the Almighty for preserving me”.

During the lockdown, he had participated in virtual minyans — a poor substitute, he said, but a substitute nonetheless. “There’s a great feeling of relief I can now resume going back to shul.”

He found this week’s portion, which he heard read on Monday, particularly poignant as there were verses referencing “after the plague. It sort of intimated to me that now, please God, we can put the plague behind us.”

For Pinner Synagogue warden Nigel Presky, 63, “you can’t beat being in shul. I do like the airy feeling of space around us and obviously we’ve got a great decorum now.

“The masks are making it more difficult to feel more natural. But once you get used to it, you half-forget they’re there.”

In a multi-purpose building, it had been easy to reconfigure to comply with the new normal. There had been less talking but a “friendliness” remained with small, socially-distant chats before and after the service.

However, Mr Presky was “apprehensive” about the larger services such as Shabbat.

Pinner congregant Howard Lewis, 69, said he had attended every service since Sunday. His father died from coronavirus at the start of lockdown and he had been keen to say Kaddish.

Pondering the changed environment, he said that if shown a picture of the congregation a year ago, “we’d probably have thought it was Purim”.

For Avromi Freilich, chazan at Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, it was heartening that worshippers had seen the cup as “half-full and not half-empty”

Mr Freilich said the rabbinic teams were “trying to use common sense” to ensure the return to communal prayer was “as beautiful as possible.”

Having succeeded in sustaining religious life during the lockdown, Jews were now faced “with a different type of challenge and we’ve got to overcome that and succeed in it.”

There were different challenges for others serving the community.

Kosher caterer Ben Tenenblat was waiting for an announcement from the government about returning to business. “It is literally the flick of a switch and we can go,” he said.

Mr Tenenblat said his company had been forced to innovate to survive and had added a new service - a food truck serving “urban and cool” dishes.

“I’m excited about the new ventures,” he said. “But we want to get back to doing what we do best so we are waiting for the announcement.”

Meanwhile, Naomi Dickson, chief executive of Jewish Women’s Aid, expected the easing of the lockdown to be “the tip of the iceberg” in terms of additional cases of abuse.

But she was “confident that Jewish Women’s Aid can deliver what it needs to as we have a resilient and fantastic staff.”

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