Going to a United synagogue service next week? Prepare for the new normal

US guidelines cover everything from travel to shul toilets


Shorter services for smaller numbers, greater outdoor provision and maintaining social distancing of two metres are key elements of a guidance paper for United Synagogue congregations.

Issued on Wednesday in advance of the resumption of shul services, the lengthy document — approved by the Chief Rabbi and London Beth Din — also contains specific advice on shivahs, hygiene, travel and integrating some of the online activities which have proved popular during the lockdown.

For travel to services, members are advised to avoid public transport on weekdays and not to share a car with people from other households. Those living with someone who is shielding should carefully consider the wisdom of attending.

Congregants should remain at least two metres apart, including when entering and exiting the shul.

The exception is for attendees from the same household — “this also impacts on seating arrangements as males and females from the same household may sit together”. Everyone should wear face coverings and there should be no singing other than by the service leader.

People should bring their own siddurim and chumashim. If this is not possible (for example, on Shabbat in an area without an eruv), “they should select a book from a ‘clean’ shelf and replace it on a ‘used’ shelf. Assuming a book is not used again during the week, it need not be cleaned and can be used again the following Shabbat.”

Toilets must remain open, with hand sanitiser placed immediately outside doors and signs reminding congregants to sanitise their hands before and after using the facilities.

In the initial phase, the US is recommending that children under 12 are not allowed in services, save for family and close friends of barmitzvah or batmitzvah celebrants. However, “small-group programmes for young families or youth could take place on Shabbat afternoons”, but they should not use shared toys, books or equipment.

Shivah minyanim can be held on shul premises but not in members’ homes or gardens.

Communities can only facilitate or publicise events in members’ gardens “if they meet the requirements of those settings as laid out in government guidance. Currently no more than two households or six people can gather in a private garden.”

Where practicable, shuls should consider holding outdoor services on their premises. In that instance, spaces should be marked out to assist with social distancing and again, only the service leader can sing.

In the event of a confirmed case of coronavirus on a synagogue site, anyone who was within two metres of the individual for more than 15 minutes should expect to be contacted by the NHS test and trace programme. If there is more than one confirmed case, the community should inform both the US and the local PHE health protection team.

Leaders recognise that many will be unable or unwilling to return to shul buildings immediately.

“As a result, it is essential that the online provision remains strong and that those who cannot or are not ready to return do not feel excluded.

“Over the past few months, we have learned that many online activities have attracted higher attendance and engagement than their ‘real life’ counterparts, perhaps due to their immediacy and ease of access. Communities should therefore aim to take a holistic view on their provision, integrating the physical and the virtual where possible.”

Stressing its cautious approach, the US noted: “Evidence from around the world suggests that places of worship have been centres of outbreaks. As much as we all wish to return to as close to normal as possible, it is our responsibility to do so in a controlled and careful manner, particularly at the start, as we get used to implementing and managing a new way of running our communities.”

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