The leadership team at Temple Beth Sholom of the East Valley began planning High Holiday services in May.
“We were going to assume we were back in person and deal with a pivot if we had to,” said TBSEV Rabbi Herschel ‘Brodie’ Aberson.
The synagogue resumed in-person services for all members recently, after a year of hosting them virtually. And, for a time, only vaccinated members could come in person. Social distancing and mask wearing continues to be required.
“We’ve taken such serious steps, because, honestly I was anticipating something like the delta variant, where it would bypass our assumptions,” Aberson said. “And if we assumed a greater potential danger than actually existed at the time, we would be ready if something came up.”
Now that COVID-19 cases are on the rise, the synagogue — like many across Greater Phoenix — is reevaluating its High Holiday services, trying to balance the high rate of vaccination within the community with the threat from the delta variant.
“I think anyone who’s being rational is looking at the trend in our numbers in Arizona and going, ‘This is bad,’” Aberson said.
Arizona has reported more than 2,000 new daily COVID cases in the past week, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Arizona the fourth highest case rate per 100,000 people among states and territories as of Monday, Aug. 9.
Decisions about how to plan for yet another holiday season in COVID’s shadow are keeping synagogue leaders up at night. Those decisions range from whether to hold services indoors or outdoors, on Zoom or in-person or both, with masks or without, with social distancing or without, and with options available only to the vaccinated or without regard for vaccination status.
Temple Beth Emeth of Scottsdale Rabbi Zari Sussman said her congregation plans to have in-person services with masking and social distancing, and all attendees are required to be fully vaccinated.
“We were very strict before the delta variant became widespread, so we don’t need to change much,” she said. “We have had discussions about the variants and are keeping communication open.”
Chabad of Mesa Rabbi Laibel Blotner originally planned to have in-person services at the Chabad Center. “It can fit 100 people cramped, and 75 comfortably and it is easier to do it in our own facility,” he said. But because of the delta variant, he decided to rent a 4,000-square-foot building, which provides “plenty of room for social distancing,” near Dana Park Village Square.
Masks will be recommended, but he isn’t sure yet whether they will be required.
Temple Solel Associate Rabbi Debbie Stiel said in some ways this upcoming High Holiday season is even more challenging than last year.
“Then most of us knew we would be offering services virtually,” she said. “This year there are more unknowns such as how many people want to come into the synagogues for services, and how to create an experience that is as meaningful as possible for those watching from home and those in the building.”
Congregation Kehillah Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman said the synagogue’s High Holiday plan is being evaluated regularly.
“It will be reviewed again in about two weeks from now and we’ll see where things stand,” she said.
Kehillah is planning to offer in-person services only to members, “and in person means masked, vaccinated and distanced,” as well as virtually.
“Many more of us are vaccinated now, but it doesn’t make you not susceptible to illness, it just means that the illness is likely to be less intense,” she said.
The risks delta poses to vaccinated people appear to be low — most of the coronavirus vaccines have remained effective at preventing serious illness and death from the delta variant, and the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths from delta have been among the unvaccinated.
Still, even vaccinated people who have been comfortable socializing with other vaccinated people in small groups may not be comfortable attending Rosh Hashanah services with hundreds of people. And for vaccinated parents of children who are not eligible for the vaccine, the calculations may be different.
For those attending services on the High Holidays, traditionally the most well-attended synagogue services of the year, that means yet another year of not quite “back to normal.”
“There’s been a lot of understandable agitation about the precautions we’ve been taking. And just the general frustration of still being in this when we were hoping to be out,” Aberson said.
Sharfman feels people are even more concerned this year than they were a year ago.
Sussman said many of Beth Emeth’s members became isolated during the height of the pandemic. “We want to bring those members back to a supportive community in a healthy way,” she said.
Deciding what to offer and how is weighing on Jewish community leaders.
“I realized early on that I did not want to be responsible, directly or indirectly, for people getting sick and/or being put at risk of permanent harm or death, just for a ritualistic activity,” Aberson said. “Our tradition makes it perfectly possible to pray independently and fulfill one’s obligations, and overriding concerns come into play with things like a pandemic.”
Sharfman said the highest Jewish value is pikuach nefesh: The preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious rule.
“While our goal is to open as fully and as quickly as we can safely do, we do not want to cause harm in the process,” she said.
Blotner said he is managing people who are just as reluctant to put a mask on as they are taking them off.
He said it is worth being inconvenienced to protect your own health and the health of others around you.
“I pray every day that every person who comes to our synagogue, God forbid, does not get sick,” he said, noting he wants everybody to do only what they are most comfortable doing for themselves.
Stiel feels everybody is “suffering from COVID fatigue.” The pandemic has been going on for 18 months, people are mourning the loss of loved ones and fearing for their own safety.
“I hope the High Holidays will provide all of us with some uplift in these challenging times. The music, the liturgy and the holiness of the season are so awe-inspiring, and I think we need a good dose of that now for our mental well-being.” JN