Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has urged “extreme caution” against synagogues ending the coronavirus lockdown prematurely, adding that the Jewish community will need to “hold back” once regulations permit a return to congregational worship.
Writing exclusively in the JC, the Chief Rabbi says that “synagogues will not open for a long time” as he fears that they could become a “hub for the virus to reappear”.
He cautions that the “intensely social atmosphere” of the community, its age profile and the lack of available space to conduct social distancing place it at particular risk.
Rabbi Mirvis, who ordered all United Synagogue shuls closed in mid-March, writes that once they re-open it is “likely” that the number of worshippers attending synagogues would be limited “for a time”.
The Chief Rabbi warns that the “close-knit, vibrant communities” that are normally “our greatest strength as a community has become our greatest weakness” in the struggle to check the spread of Covid-19.
Writing that some casualties of the virus had been infected at “Purim services and parties in our Synagogues” in early March, the Chief Rabbi underlines why shul-goers were at particular risk.
“In our shuls, we pray and sing in close proximity to one another,” he writes.
“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.
“Tragically, everything we know and love about shul facilitates the spread of Covid-19,” he continues.
As the government begins its roll-back of the most stringent coronavirus lockdown restrictions, the Chief Rabbi writes that the Jewish community is now tasked with the “slow rebuilding of community life”.
Echoing previous interventions that he has made over the past few weeks, the Chief Rabbi says that the “overriding guiding principle” in community decision-making should be the “responsibility, above all else, not to take any risk with our own lives or with the lives of others.”
Rabbi Mirvis, paying tribute to ‘hero’ rabbis and rebbetzin, notes that the community’s emergence from the lockdown will be a “phased process of many months” that will require the answering of many “difficult questions”.
The Chief Rabbi suggests that limiting of the number of worshippers attending synagogue is “likely” and that many activities and events, such as kiddushim, will be unlikely in the foreseeable future.