Congregation Beth Sholom's first in-person service in eight months took place outdoors with ample space between attendees' chairs. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
Congregation Beth Sholom's first in-person service in eight months took place outdoors with ample space between attendees' chairs. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

In-person Shabbat services? Some Conservative synagogues say yes

On the first Friday night in November, about two dozen members of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco gathered in a cold, windy courtyard for the synagogue’s first in-person prayer service in eight months.

“March 6 to Nov. 6 — eight months to the day since we last had services here at Beth Sholom,” said Rabbi Dan Ain in his brief sermon that night.

Many local Orthodox congregations have been holding in-person, mostly outdoor services during the pandemic.

Now some Conservative synagogues are following suit, encouraged by relaxed city and county regulations permitting worship services to resume. San Francisco, for example, began to allow places of worship to reopen for indoor services at 25 percent capacity in late September — though none of the Conservative synagogues J. spoke with were planning to have indoor services soon.

The service at Beth Sholom lasted about an hour and included singing (behind masks, of course) and plenty of safety precautions. Attendees had to RSVP, affirm that they had no Covid symptoms and have their temperature taken by a volunteer upon entry. Attendance was limited to 30 people and chairs were set up far from each other.

Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek began holding outdoor Friday night services with similar precautions on Oct. 30. And Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland has been holding regular outdoor services since June.

All three shuls have held other in-person events — such as an occasional outdoor b’nai mitzvah or small gatherings in the sukkah — but Friday night prayers are the only regular in-person services the three synagogues are planning for right now. And they are all outside. At B’nai Shalom and Beth Abraham, the rabbis stand behind plexiglass barriers while they lead services.

Rabbi Mark Bloom of Temple Beth Abraham stands behind a transparent barrier while he leads in-person outdoor services. (Screenshot/YouTube)
Rabbi Mark Bloom of Temple Beth Abraham stands behind a transparent barrier while he leads in-person outdoor services. (Screenshot/YouTube)

It’s one more way that Conservative synagogues are easing back into “normal” worship mode.

Early in the pandemic, the Conservative movement, responding to congregants’ and clergy’s desire to pray together, created guidance for member congregations that wanted to stream Shabbat services (which would not typically be allowed under Conservative halachah, or Jewish law). The leniency was controversial in some circles.

Beth Abraham and B’nai Shalom began streaming around that time, but say the Conservative movement’s official guidance did not play a big role in their decision. Both have continued to stream their services even as they have begun holding limited in-person services.

“Everything that we do, if we do an in-person thing, it’s also simultaneously being streamed over Zoom,” said Rabbi Daniel Stein of B’nai Shalom. “I still have a computer in front of me so I can say hi to people and engage with them as they come onto the Zoom call.”

But those who sign up to attend the service in person — 35 people maximum — are getting something more.

“We’re responding to a variety of emotional and spiritual needs in our community,” Stein said. “Some are not going to feel safe attending services until there’s a vaccine, so we want to provide for their emotional and spiritual needs. Others feel such a sense of isolation because we haven’t been able to gather in physical ways — but we wanted to do it in a way that’s safe for everybody.”

And who decides what’s safe for everybody? Many synagogues, including B’nai Shalom, have established committees to make or review pandemic-related decisions for the community. Some of the committee members are experts in relevant fields; in B’nai Shalom’s case, for example, the committee includes an infectious disease doctor, an education administrator and a security expert.

Contra Costa County, where B’nai Shalom is located, relaxed restrictions on indoor religious services on Oct. 27, but Stein says his shul is proudly lagging behind what the county permits.

At Congregation B'nai Shalom, services are conducted from behind this table with transparent barriers affixed to it. (Photo/Rabbi Daniel Stein)
At Congregation B’nai Shalom, services are conducted from behind this table with transparent barriers affixed to it. (Photo/Rabbi Daniel Stein)

“We always want to be one step behind what’s allowable, in a sense, out of an abundance of caution” he said.

Beth Abraham took a different approach. Rather than waiting for Alameda County to permit limited indoor worship, which it did on Oct. 23, and then take that as guidance to resume outdoor gatherings, the synagogue resumed outdoor worship services in June, “almost immediately” after the county permitted those, Rabbi Mark Bloom said. Most have been Friday night services, but there have also been some b’nai mitzvahs.

“Our feeling was, the sooner we can get back to something that’s very safe, then we’re going to do it,” Bloom said. “When we started having them, most people were very excited. Others said they wouldn’t go in person, they were too concerned about safety, but they were glad we’re doing it.”

Masks and RSVPs are required at Beth Abraham, and chairs are set up with appropriate distancing. But unlike Beth Sholom, attendees at Beth Abraham still aren’t allowed to sing, an activity that can potentially spread infectious droplets.

Ruach [spirit] at services is very interesting because people can’t sing, but that means I’ve finally gotten them to clap” to the rhythm of the song, Bloom said. “It’s hard to get people to clap at Conservative services.”

Stein said some people need to be gently reminded not to hug friends or get too close. “People want to connect so much right now, and we have to remind people to keep their distance,” he said.

So what’s next? Stein, like Bloom and Ain, said he’s going to stick with in-person Friday nights for now. Saturday mornings will continue over Zoom because “there are particular issues around how you might conduct a Torah service in such an environment,” he said.

But in the long run, Stein said, there are many questions to be answered.

“What happens on the other side of this?” he pondered. “A lot of people have found the Zoom experience very meaningful, so I have a lot of questions about what post-pandemic Judaism will look like.”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the digital editor of J. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.