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Jews can't gather for Rosh Hashanah and stay safe from COVID-19

Rabbi Mendy Heber blow the shofar horn ahead

Rabbi Mendy Heber blow the shofar horn ahead of the Rosh Hashanah Jewish holiday at the Chabad Brookville in Brookville, New York on Sept. 11, 2020 Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

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This High Holiday season, Jewish congregations are taking meticulous steps to ensure the safety of their congregants. After speaking with rabbis of every major denomination, I'm confident that synagogue leaders are doing everything they can to lower the risk that in-person gatherings will spread COVID-19.

But after speaking to public health experts, I'm not confident that it will be enough.

The time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, starting on Friday evening, is usually the most-attended synagogue period of the Jewish calendar. Because of the pandemic, the vast majority of U.S. congregations will be streaming online services this year. Most Orthodox congregations, however, because our understanding of religious law prohibits the use of electronics on the Sabbath and holidays, will be holding significantly shortened indoor and outdoor services, with both masks and social distancing strictly enforced. Some Conservative congregations will be doing so, as well, though their movement is allowing online prayer quorums during the "crisis situation."

While rabbis are taking myriad precautions to prepare for the High Holidays, Gary Slutkin, a physician and epidemiologist formerly with the World Health Organization, told me that he sees "no legitimate reason for any in-person service . . . you cannot protect yourself enough."

The Orthodox Jewish community, especially in New York and New Jersey, was hit early and hard by the coronavirus. After months of watching my community suffer, I wish those considering coming together this holiday season — particularly indoors — would learn from our tragedies and avoid repeating our mistakes.

It's hard to overstate the importance of community and the synagogue in Orthodox Jewish life: In normal times, men form groups of at least 10 to pray together three times a day. On Shabbat and holidays, we're prohibited from driving or riding public transportation, so families live within walking distance of their congregation and often share boisterous meals in one another's homes. We sign up to bring food when someone has a child or loses a relative; we have myriad "gemachs" that lend out everything from wedding dresses to soup tureens free to those who need. It's not uncommon to have 400 people or more at a wedding, or to celebrate a brit milah or bar mitzvah.

Because we're so tightknit, the coronavirus epidemic has been especially devastating. Some of the earliest confirmed COVID-19 cases on the East Coast were concentrated in the Modern Orthodox households in New Rochelle, N.Y. Because of the highly interconnected nature of our community, the virus quickly spread to New York City and Teaneck, N.J., via a bat mitzvah, then to Lakewood, N.J.; Monsey, N.Y.; Kiryas Joel, N.Y.; and other areas with large Orthodox populations.

Although Jewish communal groups urged individuals to take basic precautions such as washing their hands, the holiday of Purim in early March — with its customary crowded readings of the Book of Esther in synagogues and festive meals with family and friends — became a superspreader event. Such a meal or reading was probably where I contracted the virus, as well, as I embraced social distancing in earnest only after the holiday.

The pages of Haredi publications and Jewish news outlets were filled this spring with obituaries of the thousands who had died of COVID-19, including leading rabbis of our generation — and, soon after, countless stories of those who recovered and had donated plasma containing antibodies.

But by now, much of the Orthodox community has slipped into complacency, acting as though we have gained some degree of herd immunity. Though there have been too many instances of enormous weddings and funerals, most people have simply started taking fewer precautions, venturing out for Shabbat meals, traveling to visit relatives or attending scaled-down celebrations. Still, as Natalie E. Dean and Caitlin Rivers have reported, even New York City is far from the positive antibody level needed to achieve herd immunity, making these decisions unwise.

I would like to say that I've been an exception. And yet, since I tested positive for antibodies in May, which indicated I had previously been infected with the virus without manifesting any symptoms, I've slowly been venturing out: I have been working from home since March, wearing a mask in public indoor spaces and greatly minimizing social contact. But I've also attended weddings, engagement parties and Shabbat dinners, and I've dined with friends at restaurants, both indoors and outdoors.

The idea that we're past the pandemic could be dangerous, Slutkin said: Just because someone has antibodies doesn't mean they can't hold virus particles in their nose or lungs to pass on to someone else.

As the seriousness of the pandemic became more evident, groups representing both Modern and Ultra-Orthodox Jews urged people not to travel. And thanks to warnings to restrict Passover Seders to immediate households only, we mostly managed to keep Passover, in early April, from spreading the virus the way Purim had.

But now it's months later. And unlike Passover, which centers on home-based Seders, the High Holidays are built around communal worship.

Yet as hard as it may be to limit coming together, the Jewish community can't allow the massive spread of COVID-19 to become the legacy of this holiday season.

Experts I spoke to worried less about the sufficiency of precautions at official outdoor services and more about the casual mixing that happens afterward, when fellow congregants might gather in proximity without masks to chat.

Indoor services are even more dangerous. While the rabbis who have been holding in-person weekday and Shabbat services, mainly in Orthodox congregations, told me they have seen no confirmed coronavirus cases linked to these gatherings, Slutkin said coronavirus particles can linger in indoor air. If your mask isn't tightfitting and worn perfectly — and few are — "you're going to be taking in the air of the room," he said. "And how infectious the air is depends on everybody else's mask."

As Derek Thompson has reported in the Atlantic, speaking loudly or singing, as one does during services, is particularly dangerous — and speaking quietly "reduces the risk of viral transmission by a degree comparable to properly wearing a mask." High Holiday services, which are longer than the usual Saturday services, only increase the risk.

I am signed up for an outdoor service at my Orthodox shul in the New Jersey suburbs. Because of the safety protocols the synagogue has put in place, I am not concerned that I will catch something there. But I am concerned about the long, lingering conversations in the street that are a hallmark of holidays in our communities, the small meals among friends and family who've come in from other cities.

Most of us will likely stay safe. But is it worth the risk?

Whether indoor, outdoor or online, services are going to be very different this year in most places. Many rabbis I spoke to are relying on outdoor tents, basketball courts, wide-open windows and other socially distanced arrangements.

We have only hours before the holidays commence. But there's still time to implore our congregations, and own families, to take precautions. If you're attending an in-person service, consider asking your rabbis to require that individuals not linger and discourage inviting others home for an indoor meal. Check in on elderly and isolated individuals in your community to ensure they have everything they need to celebrate safely. We can't just rely on our rabbis to make the holidays safe — we need to encourage those within our circle of influence, and in our own families, to scale back, as well.

I'm not sure if I'll end up attending the service I'm signed up for. But I will be gently encouraging those I'm celebrating with to do so as safely as possible.

Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, chief executive of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly, told me that "we're a people that likes to be together to pray, to form community, to celebrate. And it's very hard when we can't be in physical proximity."

But, he added, "it would be especially tragic if religious experience led to the death of participants. Our most central religious value in Judaism is to preserve life."

Adkins is a New York based writer and the Opinion Editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. This piece was written for The Washington Post.

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