Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland held its first indoor service in a year, March 14, 2021.
Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland held its first indoor service in a year, March 14, 2021.

Facing omicron spike, Bay Area synagogues weigh their options

With the omicron surge in the Bay Area, some synagogues are pondering shutting their doors again to in-person services — and some already have.

But while case numbers are high, the lower severity of omicron Covid means synagogues are taking different tacks — balancing safety and the importance of community after a long season of Zoom fatigue.

“Things are very much up in the air right now,” said Barbara McGee, president of Conservative Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa.

The omicron variant, which was discovered by South African researchers in early November, has already become the dominant strain of Covid in countries around the world, including the U.S. It’s thought to be more easily transmissible, but less severe than the delta variant. At a Dec. 29 press conference, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said healthy, vaccinated people appear unlikely to be hospitalized by omicron, especially if they have had a booster shot.

This past week Marin, San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa Counties made an about-face regarding their state-sanctioned exemption from the temporary statewide mask mandate, as breakthrough cases of omicron surge in fully vaccinated people. Those counties now require masks at virtually all indoor activities.

Synagogues across the Bay Area are coming up with different responses.

On Dec. 23, Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont announced that in-person services would be paused for January, with all events going back to Zoom-only.

Congregation Beth Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Napa, is also going virtual through mid-January, starting this Shabbat.

We continue to take an approach of ‘life with modification,’ recognizing that spiritual, communal, and emotional stability are an essential part of our health

Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Oakland, is continuing in-person services, according to a statement from their reopening committee. (Orthodox synagogues do not permit Zoom or other audio or visual transmission on Shabbat and holy days.)

“We continue to take an approach of ‘life with modification,’ recognizing that spiritual, communal, and emotional stability are an essential part of our health and wellbeing. By adhering carefully to Alameda County guidelines, we can continue to prioritize the physical health of the community and enhance the joyous moments that will bring us together in the coming months,” the statement said.

Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom of San Francisco announced Dec. 29 that Shabbat morning services will continue for vaccinated congregants, or those with a negative Covid test, but the usual child care won’t be available.

“Our world has gotten more complicated again,” an email to the community said.

McGee in Santa Rosa said Shabbat services at Beth Ami are still in person. “We are not requiring boosters for congregants but we are for all staff,” she said.

At Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, congregants were informed via email that in-person attendance in the main sanctuary would be capped at 350 (the room seats 1,750), and surgical or K/N95 masks are to be worn at synagogue, as cloth masks would no longer be accepted.

“Because omicron is more transmissible than previous variants, the CDC recommends taking greater precautions to avoid the coronavirus, which includes discontinuing the use of cloth masks and instead utilizing surgical or N/KN95 masks,” Nika Greenberg, director of business operations at Emanu-El wrote.

Emanu-El will still require all attendees to show proof of full vaccination, and strongly encourages getting a booster. Parents of children under 5 who are ineligible for vaccines will be required to show a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of coming to the synagogue. Food will be off-limits, and those hosting visitors, or traveling out of town, are asked to not visit the synagogue for ten days upon their return, or the visitors’ departure. (The CDC this week shortened recommended quarantine periods from 10 to five days.)

Rabbi Mark Bloom leads a socially distanced outdoor Friday night service at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, March 5, 2021. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
Rabbi Mark Bloom leads a socially distanced outdoor Friday night service at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, March 5, 2021. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

“In general our rules have always been slightly stricter than what’s required,” Greenberg said.

Some synagogues are taking a mixed approach.

Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills is requiring that everyone attending its masked services in the main sanctuary show they’ve received their booster doses. The services will also be live-streamed. All events involving food are moving outdoors; a large tent is going up on the outdoor patio so that b’nai mitzvah families can still enjoy a Kiddush lunch. Any out-of-towners attending will be asked to take a rapid Covid test that same day.

Rabbi Mark Bloom of Conservative Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland is also offering indoor services for fully masked attendees and streaming those services online. Bloom told J. he felt that, given the size of the sanctuary, people could distance themselves safely.

But the synagogue is delaying the start of its Kindergym toddler program and won’t hold Kiddush lunches inside (recent Kiddushes were outside, but rainy and cold weather has scotched that practice).

The constantly evolving recommendations and requirements are daunting.

On Dec. 20, Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek announced that masks would not be required for indoor services, although those who don’t mask must pass a rapid Covid test within the previous 24 hours; that was before Contra Costa County restored indoor mask requirements this past week.

“We rely on the medical opinion of our experts and follow the guidance from Contra Costa County,” said Stuart Kirsch, the executive director of the congregation. “We continue to monitor news and regulations and adjust accordingly.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for KTVU Fox 2 News. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.