Ontario Synagogues in No Hurry to Reopen

By STEVE ARNOLD

Synagogues around Ontario are not rushing to reopen their sanctuaries despite a provincial action to loosen COVID restrictions.

On Monday, Queen’s Park announced that effective Friday (June 12), places of worship would be permitted to hold services in their sanctuaries for up to 30 per cent of the hall’s capacity.

In addition, the limit on the number of people at social gatherings has been increased from five to 10.

Illustration by Irv Osterer

In a news release, the multi-denominational Toronto Board of Rabbis said it’s too soon to throw open the doors of temples and synagogues.

“We have seen remarkable innovation, creativity, and loving kindness from the individuals and institutions of the Toronto Jewish community, which have risen to meet this moment,” the TBR said. “The time has not yet arrived when we can welcome each and every person back into our communal spaces.”

The board added “(W)e reaffirm the need for patience and caution as we each consider plans for reopening our in-person synagogue and communal functions. As we begin to reopen and return to our holy spaces, we must be guided by the recommendations of public health officials.

“We do not advocate to expedite the reopening of congregations, religious schools, and other Jewish community gathering places beyond what is recommended,” the group went on. “Our gatherings, once allowed, will continue to be subject to public health restrictions, and we commit to abide by those conditions for as long as they are in force.”

In an email exchange, Rabbi Asher Vale of the Vaad Harabonim, said the group is happy with the provincial decision to ease restrictions. He said individual rabbis and congregations will now decide how best to implement the new rules.

In Hamilton, rabbis of the city’s Reform and Conservative congregations said they have no plans to hold services in their sanctuaries despite the loosened restrictions.

“We have no plans to reopen at the moment,” said Rabbi Hillel Lavery-Yisraeli of the Conservative Beth Jacob congregation. “We were very surprised by Ford’s announcement and worry that it is way too premature. We are not comfortable reopening until we are absolutely convinced that it’s safe to do so.”

Rabbi Jordan Cohen of Temple Anshe Sholom, Canada’s first and oldest Reform congregation, said any reopening there will be based on the Jewish imperative to preserve life and health above all.

For him, the bigger issue is not when can sanctuaries reopen, but what are services going to look like when that happens.

Most likely, he said, congregants would have to be met at the doors of the temple by attendants dispensing hand sanitizer and face masks, along with instructions to stay six feet apart. There would be no oneg Shabbat social gathering or time to chat after services. The temple’s choir would also remain silenced.

“The entire service would be me talking from behind a mask and everyone else offering their own private prayers from behind their own masks,” Rabbi Cohen said. “For our congregation, that would be a grossly unsatisfying experience.”

Rather than rushing to restart in-person services, Rabbi Cohen said rabbis are grappling with what to do for the High Holidays this autumn.

The working assumption, he said, is that most COVID restrictions will not be lifted by September, so plans are being developed now for online services with, possibly, such in-person elements as tashlich (the prayer ceremony recited during the Days of Awe alongside a body of running water) and “drive-by or drive-up” shofar blowing.

“We are really having to rebuild services from the ground up and think outside the box,” said Rabbi Cohen. “We have to balance the health of the community and the integrity of our traditions. It’s a day-by-day thing right now.”

More enthusiasm for the easing of restrictions was expressed by B’nai Brith Canada, which has argued, along with a group of Orthodox rabbis, that restrictions infringed on religious freedom.

“Full Jewish prayer services require the presence of at least 10 people, and traditional Jews cannot use drive-ins, Zoom or other electronic platforms to facilitate services on the Sabbath or holidays,” B’nai Brith said in a news release.

“We are pleased and relieved that Ontario’s leaders have listened to the reasonable concerns of their constituents, including the requests of the province’s grassroots Jewish community,” B’nai Brith chief executive officer Michael Mostyn stated.

 “While caution is still warranted given the current health threats, there is no reason to prevent small, carefully organized prayer services from taking place — especially when much larger gatherings were already permitted for non-religious purposes.”