D’var Torah – Reopening Thoughtfully and Safely

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 27 June 2020

Some of you may have seen an article in the JC this week entitled ‘it’s a reform lockout – but we hold the key’. The piece sparked quite the conversation on our rabbinic email chain. It’s tone, although humorous, was provoking and attacked the decisions our Reform communities have made so far, to remain online and not be together in the traditional way for our High Holy Day celebrations.

In the article, journalist Norman Lebrecht states:

‘Reform is the branch of Judaism that likes to say yes…its fundamental inclination is to permit, not to forbid. One day festivals? Tick. Drive to shul? Better than not going. Mixed seating? If that’s what families want…

But now, in the long tail of the 11th plague, Reform has gone all proscriptive. Shuls are no-go. Prayer is distanced and behind screens.’

The statement is true, we have kept the doors of our sanctuary closed, acting as a physical barrier between our community and the potential risk of coronavirus. But, what the article failed to mention is that we have not taken that decision lightly. Rather we have acted intentionally and thoughtfully, with the safety of all of our members as our core focus.

We model our decision making on that of the rabbis that have gone before us, taking into account both traditional halacha and the modern day situation. So, whilst it may seem to the outside world that we drive on shabbat, or sit together in shul because we feel like it or because we decided one day on a whim, really each decision we as Reform Jews have made, has been resolved in the most Jewish way, meticulously thought through, built through makhlochet l’shem ha’shamayim, discussions for the sake of heaven.

And there is another thing this article fails to take into account. When we reopen our building doors, we will reopen thoughtfully and safely to benefit all of our community, not just those needed to create a minyan.

We are currently in a period of unknown, because the formal guidance has not yet been issued by the government. We have not seen the risk assessments we will need to undertake to allow people back into our spaces. We do not know if we will be allowed to share prayer books, to handle the Torah scroll and pass it between us, or if all in attendance will need to wear masks. It is unclear at this stage whether there will be a maximum number for services, or whether the shliach tzibbur can sing when others are in the room.

When it comes to reopening the doors of our Beit Tefilah, we remember what we first wrote when we took the difficult decision to close our doors in the first place:

“In these extraordinary times, our paramount responsibility as Jews is that of Pikuach Nefesh, “saving a life”.

As we begin to make our first moves towards opening, our community will face a significant cultural challenge. Where we normally seek to be a welcoming space, we will face the possibility of turning people who have not pre-registered away from our doors. Where we seek to pray together, we will have to ask people not to join in.

But we keep that primary responsibility of Pikuach Nefesh at the forefront of our vision.

When the rabbis discuss the overruling of the laws of Shabbat for the sake of Pikuach Nefesh, Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya says that we should save a life on one Shabbat if it means we’ll be alive for many sabbaths.

We all know that the relaxation of lockdown does not mean that the risk has now disappeared. So, as and when we reopen, slowly and thoughtfully, praying together won’t look or feel the same as we are used to.

We know we will not be able to welcome 300 people into our Beit Tefilah every Friday night. We know that we will not be able to fill our sanctuary with our chorus of voices. We know that we will have to ask a large part of our community to stay away.

And because of this, we must be committed to those who cannot join in person.  We must help them to continue to feel part of our community, to not be adversely affected because of age, vulnerability or simple over-demand.

So, even as we begin the process of opening our doors, we know it will be a long time before we are sitting in our regular seats, before we can hear our communal voice blend together to fill our Beit Tefilah.

But with the words of the Rabbis in our hearts, for now we must compromise on these strange shabbatot in our new normal, so that we can have the gift many more shabbatot together in the future.