Masks on or off? Why shuls will differ this Shabbat

Many communities will be taking a more cautious approach to face covering and social distancing at services, despite the lifting of restrictions


Young happy woman takes off protective medical mask outdoors against modern city background. Pandemic Covid-19 is over concept.

Masks are off and singing is back at shuls this week following the lifting of the remaining Covid restrictions in England on Monday.

But many communities are taking a more cautious approach in recognition of the concerns of congregants.

In its new rules and guidance, the United Synagogue has encouraged members to return to in-person activities while endeavouring to ensure that congregants feel “as safe as possible”.

The social distancing requirement for services has been reduced from two metres to at least one metre. Masks will be compulsory only where it is not possible to maintain a one metre distance.

Anyone holding private events at US venues will have to conduct a risk assessment and all shuls will need to have strong ventilation systems in place. Handshaking is still discouraged and members are generally advised not to engage in physical greetings.

US communities’ director Jo Grose said the organisation was “excited to begin to return to normal communal life” yet “mindful that Covid will be with us for the foreseeable future and that the current infection rate is high.

“The emphasis of this set of guidance is on local decision making by honorary officers and rabbinic teams, based on the needs and profile of communities.”

At Bushey United, for example, the plan is to keep using its marquee for outdoor services, at least until Yom Kippur. No masks will be required.

In the main shul, however, congregants will be instructed to continue wearing masks. “The seating layout will remain largely the same, although we will be bringing back the bimah. People will be able to sit in more flexible groupings at their discretion.”

Golders Green United members have been told that face coverings will still be required at Shabbat morning services for anyone over the age of 11, although not at other times. The shul said the decision would enable it “to continue to safely welcome families and children to daven and celebrate together.

The shul would also begin to offer “a modest outdoor kiddush option to those celebrating semachot in the coming weeks, with the aim of resuming regular kiddushim in due course.

“Safely restoring full community provision remains our highest priority.”

As for Alei Tzion US in Hendon, masks will no longer be mandatory, although their use indoors will be encouraged. Kiddishim will resume from this Shabbat. However, the use of hand sanitiser will still be required on arrival and attendees should continue to bring their own siddurim.

Liberal Judaism communities are also making their own decisions on how far to relax restrictions, helped by a weekly community briefing on Zoom at which ideas for best practice are shared.

In a statement, the Conference of Liberal Rabbis and Cantors said that “decisions will be taken according to the size of synagogue buildings, access to ventilation — and for those without their own ‘homes’, whether gathering at all for prayer feels appropriate yet. Together with the Masorti and Reform movements, we have been working with the idea of value-led guidance of impact, not just risk.”

At Birmingham’s Singers Hill Synagogue, members have been told that given the rising Covid case numbers, they will be asked to wear face coverings and maintain social distancing at both Singers Hill and the Moseley Minyan. “As everyone will remain masked and socially distanced, we will return to allowing communal singing during the service, which will add atmosphere.”

Manchester Jewish Representative Council president Russell Conn told the JC on Wednesday that the city’s Heaton Park congregation would be operating a “split shul” for services. For those on the mask-wearing side of the building, there would two metres social distancing; on the mask-free side, the distancing would be one metre. Mr Conn believed a similar policy was being adopted at the Stenecourt shul.

Although rep council meetings were still online, an event with Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy at the end of August is currently planned as in-person, although that could change. “We can’t be irresponsible,” Mr Conn cautioned. “We have a duty of care.”

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