Responding to Coronavirus: The Next Phase
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 15 May 2020
Between the Prime Minister’s announcement last Sunday evening and the release of the full document outlining the next stage of pandemic planning, something pretty interesting happened – at least if you are in our world.
A slide showing the possible relaxing of rules in Stage 3 – to take place no earlier than July, subject to all of the conditions being met, ‘if and only if’ – changed.
After Sunday night’s broadcast, in which it had a picture of a knife and fork, a take-away cup and a cinema ticket – it lost the cinema ticket, but gained a caption: ‘Places of Worship, leisure facilities, hospitality’.
The response within the world of religion has been interesting.
From some, there has been outrage that places of worship have been seen as equivalent to leisure and hospitality. To quote one minister involved in lobbying government for earlier re-opening: “the outlook of faith and belief is not to be seen as a discretionary part of our life akin to entertainment or sport but at the heart of our self-identity and a significant contribution to the well-being of the whole nation”. For religious communities whose rites require presence in a particular physical place, this is a particularly powerful voice.
On the other hand, many have cautioned against rushing to re-open.
Ours is not a ‘sector’ – to use the wrong kind of language – in which ‘economic necessity’ should be the driving factor, this voice says.
Places of worship face economic realities – we are employers, we have bills to pay; like all institutions at this time, we are concerned for the future – but unlike schools and nurseries, opening synagogues, churches, mosques will not allow people to go back to work.
And for Progressive religion, the core of what we do can be done at distance. Why would we put at jeopardy that which we are currently able to do for so many? Our building may be closed but our community is still open.
Of course, the challenge for us is that both positions are true.
What we do together matters in a way that is very different to going to the cinema.
We want to be back together.
More than anything, I yearn for a time when this space is once again full to bursting. I yearn for a time when Adam is not concerning himself with Zoom setting and YouTube, but is instead running around to get extra chairs and find siddurim. I yearn for a time when the noise of the Ruach kids on that side of the room can once again drive me to distraction, when the regulars are back in their regular seats, providing the fixed points in the Alyth universe.
More than anything, I want us to return to a time when the Alyth minibus can pick up those who need, to bring them to shul to be part of community for services, meals, gatherings – an antidote to the atomisation and isolation of modern life, heightened by our experience of lockdown.
The awareness of the divine presence that I feel on Shabbat is not brought about by this physical space but by the people who come together within it. We have proven over the last few weeks that we can welcome that presence through Zoom. But we also know that it is not the same.
The loss, the grief, remains profound.
Yet it is exactly that for which I yearn that we cannot do any time soon. Any gradual reopening of places of worship will not allow for the kind of communal gathering that we are used to, that makes our communal life so special, a return to our normal, synagogue-going lives.
A rush to reopen would be profoundly irresponsible when the risks associated with our activities, with communal gathering, with communal singing, are substantial.
I rarely have unconditional praise for the Office of the Orthodox Chief Rabbi. But the article by Rabbi Mirvis shows excellent judgement in warning that we must be cautious – as he has written in today’s JC – “everything we know and love about shul facilitates the spread of Covid-19”.
Over the coming months, some places of worship may begin to reopen, begin to do things differently.
There will be a number of variables.
There are differences in religious tradition – as Mirvis states, “faith communities in this country do not all behave or worship in the same way”. Churches may open for private prayer in the sanctuary which is not part of our tradition in the same way, when we can pray where we are.
Geography is another variable. To quote our friend the Bishop of London, Sarah Mullaly – “Being in Devon is very different to being in London”.
So, too, scale will matter – a community of 3,500, with over 500 members who are in vulnerable categories, is different to a small local parish church.
Even if we could open, physical distancing would take the capacity of this space down to less than a fifth of our regular Erev Shabbat praying community. And the practical challenges of building management, cleaning, handwashing, alone are immense.
To express the challenge of scale, imagine a world in which we could find a space to allow us to open for all. For our regular 150 erev Shabbat households to get through the gate with social distancing would require a queue up well past Balady if you go that way – or to go the other way, nearly up to Hoop Lane.
And a High Holy Day service? Even if we could imagine a space big enough to hold a service for us all in household bubbles, we would still need a queue two miles long to get in.
We will need to use great creativity and imagination as we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this year. I promise you that we will do so. That we will work hard to offer the best possible experience that we can.
Near the beginning of the pandemic, we stated that two priorities will shape our work.
The most important is the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh – the value of life, privileging the welfare of members and staff. This remains central for us. I need to be clear:
We will not reopen if it will put lives at risk.
We will not take actions that will compromise the health and well-being of the elderly, of those with pre-existing conditions, nor will we reopen around them, excluding them from our communal life.
The second priority is that we continue to put our resource into this form of gathering that has become such an important part of so many of our lives. As we enter this new phase, as some places of worship reopen in a limited way, for us an online service for 400 will have to take priority over an in-person service for 10.
And as we continue to work in this way, so we will also continue to prioritise our work to reach out between our households to look after one another as community should.
The next few months are going to be extraordinarily complex. We will have many decisions to make.
And our decisions as a large North West London Suburban shul may well be different to those of others.
For as long as we are working like this, our core task remains unchanged. We will ensure that we keep our community open, even if our building has to remain closed.