an older woman happily holds out her arms to greet an old friend in a large synagogue sanctuary
Congregants greet each other at Sherith Israel’s first in-person Shabbat service on June 18, 2021. (Photo/Natalie Schrik)

Synagogues reopen their doors after long, arduous year

For 469 long days, Congregation Sherith Israel’s domed sanctuary in San Francisco remained mostly quiet. No b’nai mitzvahs, no weddings, no services, no songs or prayers. Then, on June 18, the doors swung open.

It was an occasion for celebration at the synagogue’s first in-person Shabbat service since the pandemic shutdown, attracting a much larger crowd than usual. Hugs were exchanged. Longtime friends reunited. Sermons were read and a guitar was played. On a typical Shabbat Friday before the pandemic, the 500-family Reform shul would bring in maybe 60 congregants. On June 18, it was almost twice that, with another 40 watching over Zoom.

Gordon Gladstone
Gordon Gladstone

“The mood was one of delight,” said Sherith Israel executive director Gordon Gladstone, reflecting on the night. “People were just so happy to be together. There were a lot of reunions going on. That was heartening.”

The official reopening of California on June 15 has marked a turning point in the pandemic for the entire state, as people slowly step out into the world. Synagogues are now starting to invite congregants inside or making plans to do so. Most are starting with services and figuring out the rest incrementally.

In-person religious life in the U.S. appears to be making a comeback. A Pew survey released in mid-March found that 75 percent of those who attend churches, synagogues and mosques were “very” or “somewhat” comfortable returning to in-person worship. That’s a 12 percent increase from a similar survey last July.

Some synagogues are moving more cautiously and have delayed in-person services until the end of summer or early fall. Plans for the High Holidays are not yet set.

But regardless of where a shul is on the reopening spectrum, the moment has raised fundamental questions about what the future might look like. What does it mean for a synagogue’s social dynamic when some congregants gather in person and others choose online options? What does it mean for those who exclusively attend virtual events? And how will synagogues reconfigure religious life now that a new paradigm has been established?

People were just so happy to be together. There were a lot of reunions going on.

All of the Bay Area synagogue leaders who spoke with J. said they planned to make virtual services a regular option. At Sherith, other elements of synagogue life will stay online indefinitely, such as committee meetings and adult education, according to Gladstone. He said the adult education courses were much better attended when they were virtual. Whether that bump in attendance will continue as the pandemic further subsides, Gladstone doesn’t know.

“The people who were most active on Zoom were most active in person,” he said. “Will they come back [for] in-person? I don’t have a good answer.”

Gladstone, who as director of the Bay Area Temple Administrators’ group is plugged into how other synagogues are navigating their reopening, described “just a gamut of ways people are moving forward.”

Rabbi Dev Noily
Rabbi Dev Noily

For example, Kehilla Community Synagogue, a Renewal synagogue in Piedmont, is taking things more slowly. The executive team has been meeting weekly since early in the pandemic about its impact on shul life and how to operate around it, said Rabbi Dev Noily. Since March 2020, Noily said their strategy has been “understanding what is allowable doesn’t necessarily mean it is something we want to do.”

In-person events will be limited to small gatherings on Sundays and b’nai mitzvahs in the sanctuary for now. Not only is the synagogue delaying in-person services, but the leadership has decided to keep September’s High Holiday services online, too.

“We want to avoid a single point of convergence,” said Noily, who added that while there is a “hunger” among congregants to return to in-person services, there is no sense of pressure to fully reopen at this time.

Rabbi Gershon Albert
Rabbi Gershon Albert

Down the road in Oakland at Beth Jacob Congregation, Rabbi Gershon Albert’s Modern Orthodox synagogue has been holding outdoor services for nearly a year in the backyard of a member’s home. A couple of months ago, a survey sent to congregants found that almost 100 percent were vaccinated.

“It is a privilege that our community had access to that” level of vaccination, said Albert.

So in early May, the shul started holding its first in-person, indoor services, though with masks and social distancing. Those restrictions were lifted on June 18 when Albert sent a message to his congregation saying that anyone who was fully vaccinated could dispense with masks and distancing.

Rabbi Gershon Albert's Oakland synagogue, Beth Jacob Congregation, held its first indoor service in a year, March 14, 2021.
Rabbi Gershon Albert’s Oakland synagogue, Beth Jacob Congregation, held its first indoor service in a year, March 14, 2021.

Furthermore, “Singing is encouraged,” the email stated.

In part, Beth Jacob felt a greater urgency to reopen because halachic laws had limited virtual options during the pandemic.

“It has moved us more quickly than other denominations,” said Albert.

Other synagogues have conducted their own surveys to measure the comfort level of their congregants with in-person gatherings.

Karen Wisialowski
Karen Wisialowski

At Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, a survey found that 75 percent of congregants favored attending indoor High Holiday services. And that is what the synagogue has decided to do, according to chief community officer Karen Wisialowski, who said people are being asked to come vaccinated or after a recent negative Covid test — both based on the honor system.

The Reform synagogue has been holding in-person, indoor Shabbat services since May 28, usually with a small group of about 30 wearing masks, said Wisialowski.

The future is about “meeting our congregants wherever they need to be connected,” she said. “If that means for some not stepping into the synagogue, we have to figure out how to make them [feel] connected. We need to do something that works beautifully for both groups.”

Across the board, reopening plans have had an eye on the future, especially now that virtual attendance has become a viable and popular option.

Rabbi Jason Rodich
Rabbi Jason Rodich

Navigating that reality has been on the mind of Rabbi Jason Rodich of Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, which had its first in-person services in the sanctuary on May 28 with about 40 people.

While Rodich acknowledges the usefulness of virtual services and appreciates their accessibility, he also sees synagogue as a place where people should be together in person.  After all, he said, the Hebrew for synagogue, beit knesset, means “house of gathering.”

There’s research by Pew that supports Rodich’s view. Last August, a survey found that most Americans were likely to return to in-person services after the pandemic was declared over, even if virtual services remained an option.

“Something we need is contact with each other,” said Rodich. That will continue to be the case, pandemic or not, and “synagogues have a special role to play in that future.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.