United Synagogue chief: 'My sleepless nights over whether shuls should stay open'

Steven Wilson writes: 'We are supporting lay and rabbinic leaders to make difficult decisions'


The past year has been the hardest of my professional career. Never did I think as chief executive of the United Synagogue that we would have to shut the doors to our beloved shuls.

Back in March, the decision to close was painful but relatively straightforward: we knew little about coronavirus and drastic action was needed.

Ten months later, we are faced with the agonising decision about whether to close our shuls again.

Government recognises the vital role places of worship play and we know that providing Covid-secure services gives great comfort to members, allows mourners to say kaddish and enables families to celebrate bar- and batmitzvahs – albeit with drastically fewer family and friends present and with very stringent precautions.

Crucially, the government has said that places of worship, if correctly managed, can remain open as the risk of transmission is low. But just because the government has said something is permissible doesn’t mean we have to do it. Low risk is not the same as no risk.

Following the national move to Level 5 this week, we are permitting our shuls who wish to remain open to hold services, provided they follow strict government and United Synagogue guidance. This recognises the measures in place to minimise the risk of transmission in our synagogues, which we are strengthening further, and the excellent levels of compliance. However, we know that there is no room for complacency, nor should anyone feel pressured into attending a minyan, for their benefit or that of other congregants.

I admit to having had sleepless nights considering all the factors and we are keeping our position under constant review. It is a burden that I know weighs heavily on the Chief Rabbi, our trustees and senior staff.

Communities know their local context and are best placed to decide what is right for their membership. We are continuing to support their lay and rabbinic leaders to make these difficult decisions. Many of our shuls have decided to close and we will support them and all our members through offering daily weekday services on our Facebook page in addition to the popular Kabbalat Shabbat series.

Our Kaddish Pairing Project will ensure those unable to attend shul can have kaddish said in memory of a loved one. And in addition to the great range of programming offered by our communities, our on-demand video platform,, provides a wide range of entertaining and educational programmes.

I want to pay tribute to our truly outstanding lay volunteers and rabbinic and professional teams, both locally and centrally, who are working around the clock to react to new government guidance and to ensure their members are supported.

This past year should have been one of celebration as we marked the 150th anniversary of the United Synagogue. Sadly, like all of us, we’ve been responding to the global pandemic instead. Too many of our members have lost loved ones this year and we wish them all chayim aruchim, long life.

I pray that 2021 brings us all only good health as we wait for the positive impact of the vaccines.


Steven Wilson is chief executive of the United Synagogue

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