Samantha Liu carries a Torah scroll at her recent bat mitzvah at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. Starting Nov. 1, the synagogue is no longer requiring masks at services. (Photo/Courtesy PTBE)
Samantha Liu carries a Torah scroll at her recent bat mitzvah at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. Starting Nov. 1, the synagogue is no longer requiring masks at services. (Photo/Courtesy PTBE)

With Covid protocols relaxed, masks come off at more synagogues — but some still say it’s premature

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Hundreds of worshippers filled the sanctuary for Yom Kippur services at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, all of them masked. It had been the policy ever since in-person services resumed in June 2021.

But now things are changing. As of Nov. 1, the Reform synagogue is no longer requiring masks.

It’s a decision many synagogues around the Bay Area have moved toward in recent weeks, now that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the highest-attended services of the year — are behind them.

Rabbi Lisa Kingston
Rabbi Lisa Kingston

“People [were] feeling as if wearing a mask was really inhibiting their feelings of why you would come to be with other people, and to see other people, and really get to experience community,” said Rabbi Lisa Kingston, senior rabbi at Peninsula Temple Beth El.

She added that PTBE’s leaders and reopening task force — made up of members who work in fields such as medicine, law and state government — weighed the decision to make masks optional with the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh in mind. Pikuach nefesh prioritizes saving a human life over any mitzvah.

“I don’t know how our community as a whole is going to respond,” Kingston said. “I know that there are some loud voices on both sides of the masking or unmasking argument that really want things to stay a certain way, or be a certain way.”

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All PTBE services remain accessible over Zoom for those who’d prefer not to attend in person.

Recent public health figures showed San Mateo County with 15 active Covid cases requiring hospitalization, occupying 2.6% of the county’s hospital beds; in the past 30 days, according to New York Times statistics, there were seven deaths in the county due to Covid-19. In August, the county moved into the safe “green zone,” due to consistently low transmission and hospitalization rates.

“Covid doesn’t seem, for the majority of the population, like it will be a death sentence,” Kingston said. “That is so hard to say, because we don’t want anyone to be sick or put anyone at risk.” Early in the pandemic, she added, “we felt responsible for whether or not we were going to be really causing harm,” but now the concern is “we’re really trying to reduce the spread of the virus.”

At Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, anyone attending in-person services before the High Holidays had to attest to being fully vaccinated or having a recent negative Covid-19 test. Also, everyone was required to wear a mask indoors. As of Oct. 27, the masking requirement was dropped, but the attestations remain in place.

Vered Cohen
Vered Cohen

“I’ve gotten some emails back saying, ‘Baruch HaShem, thank God,’” said Vered Cohen, executive director of Beth Sholom.

People were happy to hear about the change, she added, after a long period of frustration during which the Conservative synagogue enforced stringent Covid-19 protocols. Cohen has spoken to congregants who are concerned about the risk to vulnerable individuals, and she noted that anyone who shows obvious symptoms of illness will be asked to leave.

At Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, the mask requirement was dropped immediately after Yom Kippur, according to Rabbi Mark Bloom. The decision was made by a group of members who are also physicians, including a number of pediatricians.

Bloom estimates that attendance at Saturday morning services at his Conservative synagogue are at 80% of pre-pandemic levels, and he said he has seen “very little pushback” to the loosened rules around masking, though “there are a few adults who still won’t go [to services]” because masks are not required, only recommended.

Rabbi Mark Bloom streams a live Shabbat service from Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland in May of 2020. (Photo/Michael Fox)
Rabbi Mark Bloom streams a live Shabbat service from Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland in May of 2020. (Photo/Michael Fox)

For Oakland resident Mariyama Scott, 29, full-masking compliance is a must in order for her to attend services. She’s disabled and has been suffering from long Covid since she contracted the virus in July. Her favorite place to attend services used to be The Kitchen in San Francisco, but once its indoor mask requirement was dropped in April, she said she had to look elsewhere to find the community she was missing “in these times.”

Mariyama Scott
Mariyama Scott

“It’s been really painful to be excluded,” she added.

Scott said she enjoyed attending a service at Chochmat HaLev, a progressive synagogue in Berkeley where high-quality masks (such as N95, KN95 and double surgical) are required, and provided as needed. The congregation’s protocols are listed online and include a notation that “cloth masks of any kind are not acceptable.”

Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a Reform synagogue in San Francisco known for its emphasis on inclusivity, still requires masks at indoor services and recommends N95s and KN95s. The synagogue also requires proof of full vaccination, including a first booster for adults and children 12 and older (children 5 to 11 must be vaccinated at a minimum).

And when Sha’ar Zahav hosts onegs and provides food, there’s an announcement prior to eating so that immunocompromised members can exit and socialize in a separate area, Rabbi Mychal Copeland said.

There are some loud voices on both sides of the masking or unmasking argument.

Sha’ar Zahav’s model is one that Liv Grace, 35, of Oakland, wants more synagogues to adopt. Grace used to attend Shabbat services before the pandemic, but they’re immunocompromised and extremely vulnerable to Covid-19. As worship spaces began loosening their masking requirements in recent weeks, Grace started contacting synagogues in San Francisco and Berkeley via email and social media, pushing for them to consider the impact on high-risk individuals and asking that masks be reinstated indoors.

Rarely has Grace gotten so much as a reply back. “We are speaking up and being ignored,” Grace said. “It’s not like they don’t know.”

That means Grace attends services online, from home. “I use singing and prayer spaces as grounding and a way to process my emotions for the week,” Grace said. “Zoom services don’t do the same thing. You’re still alone in your house.”

At Congregation Beth Ami, a Conservative synagogue in Santa Rosa, masks have been encouraged (but are not mandatory) at indoor services since the summer, after Sonoma County’s falling case rate put it in the CDC’s green zone.

Now, just a handful of Beth Ami’s regular worshippers routinely wear masks, according to synagogue president Barb McGee.

“I think the reason why it has dwindled is because there has been a significant amount of people who have gotten Covid that are regulars,” she said. “And they don’t think they can get it again, or they think that because they’ve had it and they’re aware of what it feels like” it would be something they could tolerate.

Congregation Kol Emeth, a Conservative synagogue in Palo Alto, stopped requiring masks in the spring when Santa Clara County removed its mask mandate.

A view from the entrance to Kol Emeth's new sanctuary, looking straight at the Ark.
A view from the entrance to Kol Emeth’s new sanctuary.

“The synagogue just wanted to be in step with the county, and did not feel a need to be stricter than the county,” said Rabbi Sarah Graff.

Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, which has allowed people to attend indoor services mask-free since the spring, announced on Oct. 20 that it would no longer require that worshippers show proof of vaccination.

“This update takes into consideration the low rates of transmission in our area, and it is in line with the current approach of Santa Clara County Department of Public Health,” read a letter to the congregation from synagogue leaders. “In September, Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County’s Public Health Director, rescinded the remaining Covid restrictions in our area.”

In Lafayette, Reform Temple Isaiah stopped requiring masks in March, and by July decided to stop checking for vaccination status.

Public health officials are now warning that a winter surge may be approaching, and just 8.5% of eligible Americans have gotten the most up-to-date Covid booster shot.

Beth Sholom’s Cohen said the reopening task force has discussed the potential for a surge, and is ready to change course and reinstate masking if cases rise.

“If it needs to be adapted in 24 hours, we circulate things quickly, either by email or meeting on Zoom, in order to make those changes,” Cohen said.

“This is in flux,” added Kingston of Peninsula Temple Beth El, “and we are continuing to watch Covid rates and hospitalization and transmission rates and anything that we might need to do to pivot to become more stringent.”

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Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
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 NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.