With COVID-19 cases rising in Maricopa County and reports of new positive cases in the Jewish community of Greater Phoenix, synagogues are tightening restrictions and even closing their doors to limit the spread of the disease.
Two synagogues, Congregation Beth Israel and Congregation Or Tzion, closed in recent weeks, citing the increasing number of COVID-19 infections. Since mid-October, the number of confirmed cases per day in Maricopa County has risen steadily, surpassing 2,800 cases on Nov. 9.
Both synagogues reopened in September for the High Holidays. CBI’s first in-person service was held on Rosh Hashanah with 60 members in attendance; after the High Holidays, attendance fell to around 30 people, and Friday evening services moved outside. Speaking to the Jewish News last month about CBI’s decision to reopen, Rabbi Stephen Kahn said that CBI would stay open “as long as the numbers, in Maricopa County in particular, stay stable,” adding that “we can always stop anytime, which is of benefit.”
Now, it seems that time is here.
On Friday, Nov. 6, Kahn sent a statement to members informing them that all Friday evening public worship services would be suspended until further notice.
“We are taking this step proactively to maintain the safety and health of our sacred community and our beloved members,” Kahn told members. “We have felt so uplifted by our worship together these past months and have enjoyed seeing many of our members since the High Holy Days ... Together, let’s pray that the rates of positive testing of the virus decrease soon so that we may open for public worship again.”
Or Tzion announced its closure on Wednesday, Nov. 11. The synagogue started a “minyanairs” group in early September, initially allowing 10 and eventually 25 volunteers to attend Torah readings in person.
As of Nov. 11, the Or Tzion campus is closed to all in-person gatherings until further notice, and the Roz Goodell Religous School will not reopen for in-person classes until after Jan. 1. In announcing the closure, Board of Directors President Frank Jacobson, Administrative Vice President Adam Schwartz and COVID-19 Committee Chair Mitch Ross emphasized that the decision was made out of an abundance of caution, and that the COVID-19 Committee will continue to monitor and reassess the situation.
“Despite the ongoing problems that this pandemic presents, we continue to meet these challenges just as Jews have done for thousands of years — with love of community, appreciation for the guiding words of Torah, and trust in brighter days ahead,” synagogue leaders wrote.
For Ahavas Torah, COVID-19 has started to hit closer to home. On Thursday, Oct. 29, just as cases were beginning to rise in Maricopa County, Rabbi Ariel Shoshan announced to members that seven people in the congregation tested positive within eight days.
“We are thankful to Hashem that we have been mostly spared of COVID infection within our local Arizona community, bli ayin hara,” Shoshan told congregants in an email on Oct. 29. “While we have certainly shared the sorrow of families across the world who have suffered loss, including some of our own, we must now unfortunately acknowledge that COVID is spreading very close to home.”
Shoshan asked members to remain committed to limiting social interactions and wearing masks, and notified them that rules for in-person gatherings at the shul would be more strictly enforced: Children would be required to remain with their parents during davening and members would be required to wear masks in shul classes.
In the months since reopening, Shoshan said, the shul operates with “an ethic of mutual respect, encouraging each family to honor all others’ perspectives of what was necessary and appropriate for their particular needs.” While some families embraced returning to shul, others did not go back and instead chose to participate in the synagogue’s online learning options. Some are becoming more cautious since reports of cases in the local community are more numerous, he noted.
In addition to strengthening measures in the wake of the positive tests, Ahavas Torah also consulted with public health advisors and asked families whose members tested positive to inform anyone who they were in contact with. As a result, several families who did not test positive but knew they might be exposed also chose to remain home for the recommended two-week period.
“We were impressed that every family involved was very open about their
diagnoses,” Shoshan said.
Ultimately, Ahavas Torah is focused on continuing to protect the community while maintaining a space for prayer and community for those who choose to attend in person.
“When we first heard that some of our members tested positive for COVID, we were chiefly concerned with their well-being and the health of their family members,” Shoshan said. “We also were sure to contact anyone who may have had direct exposure to them in order to do our part in ensuring the well-being of others and the well-being of our community’s schools.” JN