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Is it safe to attend Rosh Hashanah services? Should kids? 

Your COVID-19 High Holiday questions, answered.

By Philissa Cramer

(JTA) — For the second year, COVID-19 has made it so Jews who want to attend High Holidays services must undergo a complicated risk calculation.

Is it safe to go to synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Should I bring my children? Is the shofar a potential vector of disease?

Last year, five months into the global pandemic that has killed more than 4.5 million people globally, the answers were fairly straightforward, if dispiriting: Stay home, or at least stay masked and very far apart.

This year, the situation is more complex. Most American adults have been vaccinated, with the uptake of vaccination among Jews among the highest of any religious group, but children under 12 aren’t eligible for vaccination. For a small but vociferous segment of Americans, grudging acceptance of masking last year has morphed into antipathy this year.

Meanwhile, the highly transmissible Delta variant, alongside evidence of potentially waning protection from vaccines and emerging data showing that even vaccinated people can catch and transmit COVID-19, further complicate the picture.

“This is going to be a personal decision that will be dependent upon many factors,” said Dr. Aaron Glatt, a rabbi and epidemiologist who has spent the pandemic making medical information accessible to others in his Orthodox community in suburban New York.

“What type of shul you will be going into, the incidence of vaccination in that shul, the incidence of risk factors in your personal family — is everybody vaccinated? If they are, are they high risk? There are a tremendous number of variables,” said Glatt, who is the chief of infectious diseases and hospital epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau on Long Island and an assistant rabbi at the Young Israel of Woodmere.

He added, “And it also depends on the level of risk that people are willing to take with all those variables taken into account.”

So what is a Jew supposed to do? We’ve answered a few of the most frequently asked questions about how to observe High Holidays during the coronavirus pandemic, round two.

Is it safe to travel for Rosh Hashanah, or to have someone travel to me?

The appeal of getting far-flung family members together to share the holiday is undeniable. And we’ve learned a lot about how to manage risk during pandemic travel. But there are some caveats: Someone who is vaccinated and heads to visit people who are vaccinated in an area with a high vaccination rate is at less risk than if one party isn’t vaccinated or even if both are, but there is a high level of community transmission.

Glatt advises people considering traveling to consider “where you’re traveling to [and] the incidence of COVID in that area.” In some parts of the country, especially in the South, hospitals are near or even over capacity amid the Delta-fueled surge. They may not be safe destinations when it comes to COVID-19 or any other health issue that can arise while traveling.

The Centers for Disease Control is advising Americans to delay travel until fully vaccinated, and even then to wear a mask while in shared transportation. Unvaccinated travelers, including children, are urged to test before and after traveling and stay away from especially vulnerable people upon their return.

Is it safe to attend synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? 

Here, again, context matters.

As Rabbi Rebekah Goldman—known to congregants as Rabbi Bekah—of Farmington Jewish Congregation-Emek Shalom in Simsbury put it: “As the only synagogue in the [Farmington] Valley, we can’t afford not to have in person services, but just as we did last year, we will be having most of our services at a covered outdoor venue. We will remain masked for the safety of entire community family at all synagogue services and events until the threat of Covid (and its variants) has subsided.

Rabbi Bekah

At Beth David Synagogue in West Hartford, on the other hand, spiritual leader Rabbi Yitzchok Adler in early August told the Ledger, “Though we all hope and pray for the good health of everyone and the healing of all people visited with illness. Beth David’s hope is to be convening in its sanctuary. The specifics regarding masking and social (worship) distancing will be finalized as the Yomim Tovim get closer.” 

If context matters, so does one’s own risk tolerance. In a community where transmission is high and vaccination rates are relatively low, the risk from praying together in person is going to be higher than in a community where most people are vaccinated and there are relatively few cases. People who are unvaccinated are much more likely to require hospitalization or to die after catching COVID-

Most synagogues have policies in place that you can assess. You can also ask for more information before deciding whether to attend.

• What is their policy on masking? A mask requirement offers a low-cost, low-effort safeguard against transmission. It is also a good signifier of a conservative approach to safety.

• Are vaccinations required for eligible people? Some synagogues are strongly urging vaccinations, while others are requiring them for everyone over 12. Some are even requiring attendees to prove their vaccination by sharing their vaccine card ahead of time or at the door. 

• Is any prayer taking place outdoors? Some synagogues are moving as much of their services as possible outside, to open-sided tents where transmission is less likely. Glatt says all communities should strive to offer some outdoor options for people who feel more comfortable there.

• How well does air circulate? Good ventilation is an important factor in preventing the spread of disease.

Glatt says synagogues should be advocating vaccination, calling that “the correct medical and halachic recommendation,” referring to Jewish law. But he also says he believes that synagogues can safely accommodate people with a wide range of approaches to COVID-19.

“There should be areas where people who are vaccinated and are concerned should be able to daven [pray] with a mask on, and everybody in that area should have a mask on,” he said. “At the same time, I have not made the recommendation that everybody should be masked in every situation at every shul. I think there are people who might be uncomfortable with that for various reasons and we need to try to accommodate them as well.”

Should children under 12 go to High Holiday services this year?

Children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination in the United States; government approval for a vaccine for kids is expected sometime before the end of the year. That means the children’s services that most synagogues hold on the High Holidays are effectively for unvaccinated people only, at a time when the Delta variant has elevated pediatric hospital admissions to pandemic-high levels. It also means that including children in adult services reduces the proportion of vaccinated people in the room.

Glatt described the question of whether and how to include children as one that is concerning, with no one-size-fits-all answer.

“I think that’s a decision that every shul has to make, how they wish to handle that. If you’re dealing with an elderly population, to have them sitting next to younger children that aren’t vaccinated and their mask wearing is of some concern… I think that needs to be addressed,” he said. “If you’re dealing mostly with a younger population, they’re vaccinated mostly, they’re willing to take the chance — that may be a different situation. It’s a concern.”

Many synagogues are holding their children’s services outside to mitigate risk. But not all. Glatt says parents should take appropriate precautions, but he notes that many children are in communal settings already by attending school, which conveys an equivalent level of risk. (Tens of thousands of children nationwide have already spent time in quarantine this school year because of in-school exposures to COVID-19.)

“I do think children should be in shul,” Glatt said. “If this was the only situation where they were being exposed, that might be a different story. But they’re getting together anyway.”

Is it safe to blow the shofar in an indoor space?

Images of people blowing shofars with surgical masks over their openings became a visual trademark of last year’s High Holidays. This year, vaccines and widely available COVID-19 testing mean it’s relatively straightforward to ensure that the shofar does not spread disease. If the person blowing the shofar is vaccinated and asymptomatic, that should be fine. Let it blow, possibly not right next to everybody else,” Glatt said, noting that the person should also have no known virus exposures.

Rabbi Jason Weiner plans to put a mask on his shofar during the High Holidays, a choice others later made to ensure that they do not spread the coronavirus when blowing the ram’s horn. (Courtesy of Weiner)

Some synagogues are bringing their congregations outside to hear the shofar at the end of the service, rather than during it. To play it extra safe, others are requiring a negative PCR test — the more reliable type of test on the market — for shofar blowers in the days before the holiday.

What should I do if I find out someone at my services had COVID-19?

That’s a realistic concern. If Rosh Hashanah were today, the virus is so prevalent in the United States that in some places, there would be nearly a 100% chance that someone in the room would have COVID-19 for any event of 100 people, a typical size for smaller-than-usual services. That includes almost all counties in Florida, currently the hardest-hit state, according to an online “COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool” produced by a team of researchers.

The CDC has clear guidelines about what to do if you’re exposed to COVID-19 — which it says happens if you’ve spent more than 15 minutes total over a 24 hour period near someone with the virus. You should get tested 3-5 days after the exposure and wear a mask when you are around other people until you get a negative result. If you get a positive result, you should isolate for 10 days, even if you don’t develop symptoms.

In the early days of the pandemic, worship services were identified as key vectors of disease in both the United States and Israel, in part because some people continued to attend them after reducing other contacts and in part because of the kinds of activities — including singing — that typically happens at them. So following post-exposure recommendations could be key to making sure that High Holiday services don’t become spreading events.

What if you find out that the person who had COVID-19 was all the way on the other side of the room during services? Does that count as an exposure? Glatt’s answer points to the uncertainty that’s swirling as the Jewish world prepares to enter 5782.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “But it’s really unknown.”

Shira Hanau contributed reporting.

A New Haven shul preps for a return to High Holy Day services —  but first, some ‘emotional processing’

By Stacey Dresner 

NEW HAVEN – High Holiday services were supposed to be “normal” this year – held inside synagogue sanctuaries with maskless congregants thankful for the near end of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But now with the Delta Variant and a rise in new Covid cases, some synagogues are still deciding whether to hold services inside or whether to resign themselves to another Zoom Jewish New Year.

Even without the Delta variant, Rabbi Eric Woodward of Beth El Keser Israel (BEKI) in New Haven had already planned “Processing Our Return to the Building: Our Hopes & Fears” — two discussion sessions that he hoped would allow BEKI members to share the different emotions they were experiencing regarding the prospect of gathering with their fellow congregants physically in the synagogue building.

“Our synagogue had done a really good job of reopening and we were having people back in the building and having services unmasked in June and July. But it struck me that, even though we opened at the beginning of summer, the High Holidays are really sort of the official reopening of the synagogue,” says Woodward.

Rabbi  Eric Woodward

As of two weeks ago, BEKI was planning to hold in-person masked High Holiday services. But recognizing how fraught with mixed, often stress inducing, emotions holiday services could be for some of his congregants, Woodward decided to lead two discussion sessions to provide congregants with an “emotional space” within which to reflect their feelings. The sessions were held on August 19 and 23.

“Our society hadn’t really done much to process this at all,” he explains. “We were dealing with the pandemic and then suddenly people were getting vaccinated. There was no time to pause or reflect and ask, ‘What have we lost during the pandemic? What have we gained during the pandemic? What has our experience been?’”

At the August 19 session, the group talked about the disappointment and frustration they are feeling regarding the outbreak of the Delta variant and the reinstitution of some Covid protocols. 

“Somebody joked that this feels like the 500th day of March 2020. We’re kind of getting thrown back into that and people feel tired of having to pivot,” Woodward says. “I told them there’s a spiritual value to pivoting; we have to stay flexible, and we have the strength to do this…I said to them, ‘It can feel like this is the 500th day of March 2020, but that’s not really true because we actually have grown and changed during this time.

“We’ve also become very resilient,” he adds. “People have really faced the hard challenges in the last year and a half and they are making it. Our synagogue is really flourishing right now; there is a lot of passion and excitement. We have lots and lots of people coming to shul. So, this work of living and getting through this is not fun work, but we are doing it and that’s a big deal because 10 months ago we had no idea if we were going to have a vaccine. Yes, we have some more to do now, but we can do it.”

Dr. Jennifer Myers, a BEKI member and a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, agreed that congregants may be having a difficult time heading into High Holiday services this year.

“[There is] anxiety about the virus itself and a lot of social anxiety – people who just are really unsure about the return to large crowds. The social aspects of synagogue can be very stressful as well and it’s hard when those are the leading edge of what people are facing. It’s hard to remember the comforting aspects of shul – both social and religious,” Myers says. 

“But I think what is really making it so hard is how torn people are,” she notes. “If they were just anxious, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, they just wouldn’t go. I think what people are really struggling with is both desperately wanting to return and being afraid. And it’s that ambivalence that is catching people…If you only pay attention to how hard it is to return, you are only getting half of what the problem is. People are desperate for connection, the socialization, the religious part, the routine.”

Some of that connection was made during Rabbi Woodward’s discussion sessions.

 After each participant of the BEKI program shared their feelings, the entire group said the Shema – “recognizing that sometimes we can be with another person by just saying shema,” he says. 

“The group then did some chants and some text study before ending the session talking about hope; what we feel hopeful for in the new year and what we are praying for in the new year. People really said beautiful things – they are hoping for resilience, they are hoping for a sense of connection and friendship to be maintained, and that is very valuable.”

Rosh Hashanah: A time of renewal and unity

By Rabbi Elie Abadie

(JNS) As Jews, every Rosh Hashanah, we rededicate our commitment to Judaism. We reaffirm our devotion to Jewish law, and we strive to maintain our Jewish traditions. We also focus on improving where we need to—on correcting our shortcomings and on growing on a societal, communal and individual level. In this way, we can make a difference in our lives and in the lives of others.

The idea of a resolve to change and improve one’s ways often comes to mind during this season, although, in actuality, we are in pursuit of bettering ourselves all year.

What is it that we are looking for this year that we did not request last year? Or is it that we requested it, but never got it? Could it be that what we are asking for we already have, but we don’t recognize or appreciate it?

Over the last year here in the United Arab Emirates and in the Arabian Gulf, as part of the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, we have changed history and created a new reality. We have initiated, participated and contributed to the religious, educational, cultural and social growth of the nascent Jewish community. Thanks to the vision and the bold leadership of the rulers of the UAE and the Kingdom of Bahrain, this dream reality has come to fruition.

We have been an important and significant voice that can affect change and promote Jewish-Muslim dialogue based on shared values and tradition. Our dialogue extends as well as within the greater society that we live in and throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council region and the Arab Muslim world—indeed, with all the Abrahamic faiths.

Our prayers, our lives and our fate are all intertwined. This relationship exists not only with our community, or our society or our neighbors, but with all of humanity. We have to believe that it is our personal involvement that will be meaningful and significant; we cannot rely on others to do it for us.

How different it is now, a year or so later. There is a great yearning to learn about each other and to experience each other’s traditions. Jews are learning Arabic, and Khaleeji Arabs are learning Hebrew. Everyone is so thankful for whatever knowledge they gain in order to feel closer and getting to know one another better. We do not take this newfound relationship for granted. We strive every day to nurture and strengthen this relationship and friendship.

The High Holidays are a time in the Jewish calendar year that evokes a feeling of belonging, a feeling of togetherness—a feeling that we are all children of the same G-d, living on the earth that He created for all humanity. We are charged in maintaining it and caring for it by learning to co-exist, accept each other, and live in peace and harmony. By respecting and cherishing each other’s religious and cultural differences, we learn to appreciate and find the common faith between us. Man sees what his eyes behold, but G-d sees into the heart. We ought to do it wholeheartedly.

It is important to recognize the blessings that G-d has given us; that we can see in our times a beautiful reawakening of the Golden Age of Andalus, when the three Abrahamic religions are comingling in peace and harmony. It becomes our responsibility and imperative to maintain this environment and to participate in furthering this process.

As we prepare to stand in prayer this Jewish holiday season—to thank the Almighty for the good health, prosperity and happiness that He has given us this past year, and for the great achievements that we have accomplished in this region of the world—we should also pray for peace, good health, communal prosperity and welfare of the entire world for the year to come.

Shanah Tovah and Tizku L’Shanim Rabbot!

Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadie is the senior rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates and rabbi of the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities.

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