“It was a High Holidays atmosphere,” said Rabbi Mark Bloom, describing the first indoor event at his synagogue in more than a year.
“The joy of just being in the place and being together inside a place that’s so important to all of us, it was really something,” he added. “I was kind of giddy myself.”
The gathering was a “soft launch,” as Bloom put it, on the eighth day of Passover. It was a trial run, an invitation-only group of Temple Beth Abraham members chosen based on two criteria: being vaccinated, and being vociferous in the comments sections of livestreamed services over the past year.
Bloom’s Conservative synagogue in Oakland was the first non-Orthodox congregation in the Bay Area to begin holding outdoor services during the pandemic, all the way back in June. But on April 10, it held its first indoor service since March 2020.
The majority of Bay Area synagogues are continuing to hold most programming on Zoom, with occasional in-person events and services held outdoors. Beth Abraham is among a few that are starting to head back inside.
The April 10 service held at Beth Abraham was a bar mitzvah. From now on, b’nai mitzvah families will have the choice of an outdoor or indoor service. Though houses of worship are now allowed to be open at up to 50 percent occupancy, Beth Abraham has opted for an abundance of caution, limiting attendance to 50 people, despite a sanctuary that seats around 800.
“Although our sanctuary is beautiful, it’s too big and it doesn’t allow for the warmth I like in a service,” Bloom said. But the pandemic changed his mind. “It’s great, it means we can move inside more safely.”
Masks are required for all attendees, advance registration is required and seating is assigned. The Torah service, a logistical dance even during normal times, now requires four tables and a music stand, and the person having an aliyah cannot actually touch the Torah, as is customary.
At Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue also in Oakland, indoor services resumed on March 14 with a weekday morning service.
Like Beth Abraham 2½ miles away, Beth Jacob has been holding outdoor Shabbat and holiday gatherings since early in the pandemic, but being back in the sanctuary is something else entirely, said Rabbi Gershon Albert.
“No one had been in there in a year, and for many people in our community, this is a place they come once a week or even once or twice a day for years and years, and all of a sudden it was down to zero,” he said. “Some are still hesitant, of course, but it’s been really meaningful and powerful for people who have started to come back.”
Also like Beth Abraham, attendance is being dramatically limited and advance registration is required. Rather than 50 percent, Beth Jacob has limited attendance to 10 percent of capacity, “about 30 or 40,” according to Albert.
As an Orthodox synagogue, Beth Jacob does not have the option of virtual services on Shabbat and most holidays, so people are ready to get back, he said. “As more and more people are vaccinated, and we see that these health recommendations really do work, people are trickling back.”
Another congregation opening up is Chabad of Berkeley, which held its first indoor Shabbat service on April 9 at its University Avenue storefront. It was open for indoor services in June and July when it was briefly allowed by Alameda County, but has been closed since then.
“We’ve been having services on the rooftop at our house for over a year,” said Miriam Ferris, the co-director. “Some people are sad to see that go because it’s really nice up there, but now that it’s opening up more, we’re happy to get back inside.”
They’re expecting 25 people, which is the maximum the space can hold under current regulations, Ferris said. While it was vacant, Chabad of Berkeley took the opportunity to renovate the space, which was last used as a store that sold healing crystals. “It’s really beautiful,” Ferris said.
Though Chabads were among the first to begin holding outdoor services early in the pandemic, not all are rushing back to indoor services.
“We’re kind of taking it easy,” said Rabbi Zalman Levin of Chabad of Palo Alto. “If it’s uncomfortable for even one person [to attend indoor services], we don’t want to do that.”
Plus, he has come to enjoy holding gatherings outside. “We have a beautiful outdoor space, and our indoor space is a little small.”
In San Francisco, at Chabad of Noe Valley, Rabbi Gedalia Potash feels the same way.
“We have a garden with plum blossoms and apple tree blossoms. We decided to stay out there for now,” he said. “We feel like we’re going back to our roots in a way. In the Torah, Isaac went outside to pray.”
At neighboring Chabad of Cole Valley, Rabbi Nosson Potash isn’t considering indoor services anytime soon. “We’re thinking maybe about doing it around High Holidays,” he said.
Across town at Adath Israel, a Modern Orthodox congregation, regular indoor gatherings began around Purim, in late February.
Since March 27, congregants have even been invited to stay after services for lunch, served indoors. Attendees must be fully vaccinated, register in advance and sit in assigned seats. People are permitted to interact only with others sitting at their table.
“It’s interesting now to see people’s different comfort zones,” says Adath Israel’s Rabbi Joel Landau. “So obviously, everyone has to take off their masks to eat. But some put their masks back on to talk. There’s no right or wrong here. It just illustrates the degree of trauma and the range of responses. Some people are willing to come to services, but only for two hours. Some people are rushing back. Others, regulars for years, are fully vaccinated but they say they’re not ready yet.”