Shuls rush to comply with new government restrictions before Yomtov

Shofars can be blown on synagogue premises — but in public spaces, permission from the local council is required


Synagogues were this week making last-minute adjustments to their Rosh Hashanah schedules as the government took the unprecedented step of issuing specific guidance on Jewish festivals in the wake of tougher new Covid-related rules.

Following discussions over several days with Jewish community representatives, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government clarified the impact of social distancing regulations which came into effect in England on Monday.

The new guidance does not permit minyanim in private gardens but left councils to decide on approving other outdoor religious gatherings.

The “rule of six” — restricting social mixing to a maximum of six people, including children, indoors or outdoors in England — was introduced after the number of new coronavirus cases in the UK leapt to more than 3,000 daily.

The ministry’s faith, integration and communities division recognised “how disappointing” it would be to cancel garden services. The change reflected “the public health risks associated with private houses and gardens”.

Updating advice to congregations on Wednesday, the United Synagogue said communal tashlich programmes for Sunday could no longer go ahead.

Shofars could be blown outdoors or indoors on synagogue premises — but if planned for public spaces such as a playground or car park, permission from the local council would be required. Barnet Council announced last Friday that its parks could not be used for services.

Alternatively, members of a household remaining in their driveway could hear a shofar blown in the street, the US explained.

Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue, the largest US community, is not allowing children in shul on Rosh Hashanah and has suspended programming for them.

Its tashlich treasure trail has been pulled, as have shofar-in-the-street events planned with other local shuls.

BES chairman Simon Mitchell said: “I feel happy we’ve been able to find a way to provide that spiritual opportunity for people — a place for them to connect on Rosh Hashanah — but I’m apprehensive at the same time that we’re relying on everyone to stick to the rules.”

South Hampstead Synagogue’s Rabbi Shlomo Levin was waiting to hear whether Camden Council would approve outdoor marquees that the community hoped to have for the High Holy-Days. “In one or two areas, local councils have permitted it,” he said.

Bushey Synagogue has relocated the shofar-blowing “hotspots” it had planned over its catchment area to the two campuses where services will be held — on its own site and at Immanuel College. They will also sound the shofar outside some local care homes for residents to hear.

Any services due to take place in private gardens have also been switched to the two campuses.

Bushey’s Rabbi Elchonon Feldman said: “We want to make sure that everyone in the wider community appreciates that we’re playing our part to make sure everyone’s safe.” He termed the new guidelines “teachings from Sinai. Ours is not to question.”

Chigwell and Hainault Synagogue has had to cancel a large family event planned for Claybury Park but Rabbi Baruch Davis reported that shofar blowings for six people in gardens would be going ahead. Its plans had been vetted by Essex Police.

US director of communities Jo Grose said: “It is, of course, disappointing that some of our communities have had to relocate their planned programming and services in gardens. But we have been amazed at the speed at which they have found new locations.”

Until Monday, minyanim of up to 30 people could be held in a garden. One attender, protesting at the latest restrictions to Hendon MP Matthew Offord, said: “I am sure you will agree that it is madness to force safe, outdoor prayer services to indoor spaces with reduced social distancing. There is no logical reason for this.”

But Peter Zinkin, a Jewish Barnet councillor, maintained that allowing garden services to continue would “send the wrong signal”.

Sandra Husbands, director of public health in Hackney, told the JC: “Private homes or gardens cannot be categorised as places of worship and it will be against the law to have gatherings that break the ‘rule of six’ for any purpose in those spaces.

“If synagogues wish to extend their worship spaces into car parks or other outside spaces on their land to promote social distancing, this is permitted with a thorough risk assessment.”

In Salford, where extra restrictions are in force because of the high local rate of infections, the council decided that Clowes Park would not be open for tashlich from noon on Sunday.

Salford Deputy Mayor John Merry said: “We understand the importance of tashlich to the community. But after lengthy discussions, community leaders agreed that the risk of spreading the virus was just too high.”

In another Covid-19 hotspot, Gateshead, Jewish leaders have discouraged the community from gathering for tashlich on Sunday. Instead, they have advised that families can perform it over the next three weeks until Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Succot. Two members of one Jewish family have recently tested positive for the virus.

There remains no limit on the number of worshippers in a synagogue as long as social distancing is observed and masks worn indoors. A small choir may sing in shul but other worshippers cannot join in.

The government appreciates it will be “upsetting” for people not to extend traditional hospitality on Succot but no more than six people should be in the succah. (More than six are permitted only if the household is bigger or includes someone who is part of the household’s support bubble). The guidance rules out “succah crawls” between houses.

For the second week in succession, the Board of Deputies recorded no fatalities from coronavirus within the Jewish community. The communal death toll from Covid-19 remains at 510 with six deaths recorded since the beginning of July — there were 311 in April alone.

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