Congregation Emanu-El
Congregation Emanu-El is considering how to reopen for indoor services.

Despite green light, not all San Francisco synagogues will open

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After months of Zoom Shabbats and holidays, there is some good news. San Francisco health officials this week relaxed restrictions on houses of worship, permitting up to 100 congregants to gather for indoor services at 25 percent capacity. The bad news: no singing or chanting allowed.

The revised guidelines, announced Sept. 30 by Mayor London Breed and director of public health Grant Colfax, also allow restaurants to open for limited indoor dining and expand capacity for outdoor political demonstrations, indoor malls and some gyms. In a press release, Breed called the changes “a step on our road to recovery. We are committed to following the data and continuing reopening once our local health indicators demonstrate it is safe to do so.”

For San Francisco Jews who have missed being in shul, the changes are welcome news, although forgoing singing and chanting Torah is hard to square with traditional Jewish worship.

According to the city edict, “Singing or chanting is not allowed indoors since choirs and singing indoors is a known source of COVID-19 spread. The place of worship must conduct a health check of patrons before they enter the facility. Face coverings are required at all times except for brief removal to consume food or drink if it is essential to a ritual or ceremony.”

“I think the city’s done a fantastic job with the regulations,” said David Goldman, executive director of Reform Congregation Emanu-El. “I’ve talked to colleagues and for the most part everyone feels the same. We’ve been doing a balancing act. We look at what we can do and what we should do to be safe, so members and staff will feel comfortable.”

Goldman noted that from the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Emanu-El leaders have sought to make decisions “based on our values, not only trying to follow the letter and the spirit of the regulations, and be good model citizens, but also to do what we think is best for our congregation under these circumstances.”

To that end, over the past few months Emanu-El’s spacious courtyard has remained open for lifecycle events, allowing up to 25 people (the city permitted as many as 50 for such outdoor gatherings starting Sept. 10). So far, there have been no indoor worship services. Now, in light of the relaxed guidelines, Goldman said, “We’ll be able to greenlight some indoor services.”

Even with the relaxed standards, San Francisco synagogues remain cautious and plan to continue with established safety measures. For its Sukkot celebration this year, Congregation Beth Sholom is requiring online registration for up to 30-minute visits to the sukkah. Before entering the premises of the Conservative synagogue, all attendees will get a temperature check and must sign a waiver. And of course, masks and social distancing are mandatory.

Despite the new guidelines, at least two Reform synagogues will not be opening for services. At Congregation Sherith Israel, Rabbi Jessica Graf Zimmerman said she is planning no changes. All services will remain virtual for the time being, as has been the case for months. Similarly, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav Rabbi Mychal Copeland said her synagogue will maintain the status quo, which precludes indoor services of any size.

“Based on our [reopening] committee’s earlier agreed upon parameters,” Copeland said via email, “I can’t imagine we will change anything we are doing based on the new guidelines, but I won’t answer definitively until we meet to discuss.”

In contrast, since June, Rabbi Joel Landau of Congregation Adath Israel has been holding services in his backyard, which is adjacent to his Sunset District synagogue. He even installed a new deck to accommodate a higher-capacity women’s section for the Orthodox congregation.

For months he’s been holding two services a day, every day, and says the city’s previous limit of 12 worshippers was “pretty damn arbitrary, especially outdoors.”

Landau said his congregants, like nearly all Bay Area residents, sequestered themselves in the early months of the pandemic, but as time went on “we became more comfortable hanging out in services. There was a process of getting our bearings. I ran a camp here during the summer for middle-school kids.”

Going forward with the city’s more relaxed guidelines, Landau says he wants to take into account the views of his politically and demographically diverse congregation, about 100 families in total. Some, he notes, will be happy to gather indoors in larger groups, while others will remain cautious.

“Despite those differences, we are one community and we respect each other,” he added. “I’m hoping there will be a consensus. Whatever everybody can live with, we will do. I’m envisioning certain people will say, ‘I don’t care if the city says we can go inside, I’m not coming [to indoor services].’”

Though any move toward normalcy is welcome, Goldman says he and his Emanu-El colleagues believe an abundance of caution will help keep the community safer.

“The city has been very clear that they follow the science, and I’ll take them at their word,” he said. “I’m sure other organizations have been pressuring the city [to reopen], but we never have. Quite the contrary, we’ve been happy to follow the guidance.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.