Suzanne Treviño has been watching Friday evening services online since Congregation Beth Israel stopped offering in-person services due to COVID-19.
“We’ve watched probably 90% of Shabbat services in the past year,” she said, “but it’s just not the same.”
Treviño, her husband and two kids have “desperately missed” the connection and community of in-person Shabbat services. Her 14-year-old daughter Kayla Treviño likes to sing with CBI Cantor Seth Ettinger.
“They often will do duets, and missing that music with the two of them together has been sad,” Suzanne Treviño said.
Kayla and Ettinger will be able to sing together again Friday, March 19, when CBI welcomes community members once again for in-person services.
CBI joins a growing list of local synagogues that are welcoming members back for in-person services or are planning to do so within the next month. The momentum builds as more Americans receive their vaccinations. Andy Slavitt, the senior advisor to President Joe Biden’s coronavirus response team, said that one in four adults in the U.S. have received their first vaccine shot as of March 10. The Centers for Disease Control also recently released updated and more relaxed guidance for people who have been vaccinated.
Rabbi Stephen Kahn said he has been “heartbroken” knowing some people’s spiritual and mental health needs have gone unmet because of the restrictions on community gatherings. “Jews like to pray in community,” he said. “We have a wonderful, loyal, dedicated crowd of families and adults who come to services every week, and they have been sitting at home.”
This is the second time CBI is giving in-person services a go since the pandemic began. The synagogue first closed its doors last March. It reopened last September for the High Holidays and continued with outside services on Friday nights until the end of October, when the seven-day moving average of percent positive test results began to rise. In response, in-person services were again suspended.
“So we continued to hold services online,” Khan said. “And once we got to the beginning of February and the numbers started to go back down into the single digits, we decided that the momentum again was shifting in the right direction.”
Friday evening Shabbat services are held outdoors in the Rosenzweig Courtyard and are limited to 30 people, not including clergy and staff. Members and guests must pre-register by 5 p.m. on the prior Thursday. Masks are required and seating is socially distanced. If the numbers go back up again, then services will be suspended again. “In order for us to come inside, the metrics have to go even lower,” Kahn said.
For other synagogues, the resumption of indoor services is right around the corner.
Congregation Or Tzion will begin offering in-person Friday evening and Saturday morning Shabbat services indoors on April 9. “By then our clergy will be fully vaccinated,” said Executive Director Nicky Spivak. Attendees must pre-register and attendance will be capped at 25. Participants will also have to bring a completed questionnaire with them and everybody’s temperature will be checked as they enter the synagogue. Masks will be required and seating is also socially distanced.
“We are also looking into some outdoor spaces for services,” Spivak said, adding there has not yet been a decision if a Thursday morning minyan will be offered in person.
Beth El Phoenix will also begin offering in-person Shabbat morning services indoors on Saturday, April 10. “Of course, we will only do this if the current data continues its trend and the availability of vaccines continues to increase in our community,” said Executive Director Alicia Moskowitz. “We will also meet with our COVID Task Force to reevaluate and finalize plans as we approach our intended date.” The congregation expects that plan to include attendance limits, pre-registration, social distancing and mask requirements.
Others, like the Sun Lakes Jewish Congregation, are not ready to commit to a date but are starting to plan in-person gatherings. Sun Lakes Rabbi Irwin Wiener said the congregation is considering resuming in-person services beginning with the High Holidays in September. A trial run will be held Aug. 1. Beth Emeth Congregation is also hoping to reopen services for Passover, but no firm decisions have been made yet, according to Rabbi Tracee Rosen and the executive board.
Temple Kol Ami has not held any in-person services since last March and is in the beginning stages of planning for limited in-person services to begin “very soon,” according to Rabbi Jeremy Schneider and Executive Director Nancy Drapin. “This will be discussed with the board at the end of March and we will have more details regarding protocols and attendee participation at that time,” they said, via email.
The synagogues that choose to reopen will join many others that have been offering in-person services for months, including Chabads of North Phoenix and Scottsdale, which have offered in-person Shabbat services since May.
Chabad of North Phoenix Rabbi Mendy Levertov said family units sit 8 feet apart and wear masks. Chabad of Scottsdale Rabbi Yossi Levertov said he and other leaders removed chairs to accommodate social distancing and everybody wears masks. He said only 20-30% of congregants have been attending services and more are “slowly” beginning to “trickle in” as they feel comfortable with in-person gatherings.
Chabad of the East Valley began offering in-person services at the end of May. “We began offering outdoors services but have slowly been transitioning to indoor services over the last month or so,” said office manager Carolyn West on behalf of Rabbi Mendy Deitsch. “We are slowly getting back to normal in terms of the amount of people who feel comfortable returning to in-person indoor activities.” Everybody is socially distanced and wears masks.
Chabad of Phoenix began offering in-person indoor services last June, while Chabad of the West Valley began offering them last fall. Both insisted on social distancing and masks. “When feasible, we have held outdoor events,” Secretary Jennifer Willis said.
Chabad Jewish Student Center at Arizona State University began offering in-person services in September with guidance from university leadership, medical professionals and parents. “The decision was made with a lot of forethought,” said Rabbi Shmuel Tiechtel. Participants are socially distanced and wear masks.
“We felt we could do it in a way that was safe, and some students really needed it. Some were feeling isolated, depressed and alone,” he said. The services are either indoors or outdoors depending on how many students attend and the weather, and all meals are outdoors. Tiechtel doesn’t see meals moving indoors for a while — and only when the ASU administration, doctors and parents feel it is safe.
Congregation Beth Tefillah began offering in-person services at the High Holidays. “We have been able to offer our meaningful and inspiring services in a safe environment,” said Rabbi Pinchas Allouche. “We view our community’s prayer services and spiritual needs — and the enormous spiritual and emotional benefits those provide — to be as vital as its physical ones.”
Chabad of Mesa has also offered in-person outdoor services since just after the High Holidays last year. Seating is socially distanced and masks are required. Executive Director Rabbi Laibel Blotner doesn’t have plans to offer indoor services anytime soon, but that could change depending on the May heat and COVID spread data.
Rabbi Michael Wasserman at The New Shul is also not in any rush to move indoors. The synagogue has been holding in-person Saturday morning Shabbat services outdoors since last October. Congregants meet masked and socially distanced on the grounds of a public school, or under ramadas in the middle of an open field.
“It has been a strange experience, but also a wonderful one,” Wasserman said. “Being outdoors gives us the beautiful view of the mountains and the opportunity to experience the changing of the seasons, which adds a new dimension to our prayer experience.” He’s hoping by the time it gets to be too hot to enjoy the outdoors it will be safe to move indoors.
Several other area synagogues are not ready to offer any in-person gatherings. Or Adam Congregation for Humanistic Judaism has not opened its doors since March. “We do not feel it is safe to resume in-person gatherings at this time,” said Susan Schesnol, the recording secretary.
Harvey Roberts, vice president of Temple Beth Emeth agreed. And Temple Emanuel of Tempe offered some outdoor in-person socially distanced gatherings last fall, but has not repeated them since COVID cases spiked in the last few months of the year.
“Right now, guided by our values and research, we have no immediate plans to reopen our building,” said Rebecca Weinstein, Temple Emanuel’s managing director. “But we are continually looking at the numbers and hope that changes soon.”
Treviño and her family are looking forward to seeing other community members Friday, even though it won’t be the same as it was before COVID.
“Thankfully, my husband and I are both fully vaccinated and we feel very comfortable wearing our masks and being socially distanced and trying to return to a little bit of normalcy with Shabbat,” she said. JN