For a Second Year, Jews Mark the High Holy Days in the Shadow of Covid
The leadership at Central Synagogue in Manhattan had big plans this year for the Jewish High Holy Days: After celebrating via livestream during the pandemic last fall, they rented out Radio City Music Hall for a grand celebration.
But the spread of the Delta variant has upended those plans. Now, they’ll still use the 5,500-seat music hall, but only at 30 percent capacity. And everyone must show proof of vaccination and wear masks.
“In some ways, last year was easier to plan because it was so absolutely clear we would be gathering virtually,” said Angela W. Buchdahl, the synagogue’s senior rabbi. “This year we certainly expected all the way until early July that we would be able to be in person for this year’s High Holy Days.”
Many congregations plan their celebrations for the High Holy Days, which are among the most important dates in the Jewish calendar, months in advance. But the recent surge of coronavirus cases has driven synagogues across the New York region — home to the largest concentration of Jews outside of Israel — and around the country to address safety concerns they had thought had been rendered moot by the arrival of the vaccines.
The High Holy Days begin on Monday evening with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year of 5782. They end next week with Yom Kippur, a day of atonement that is the most sacred day of the year in Judaism.
Many are planning to go ahead with in-person services, although with pandemic-era rules that include limits on the number of attendees, mandatory vaccines or masks or both and services held in outdoor spaces like parks or rooftops.
“We clergy members and executive directors in New York all talk to each other,” said Rabbi Buchdahl. “No one wants to feel like an outlier.”
The pandemic has had a deep impact on the Jewish community in New York. It arrived in the region on the eve of another holiday, Purim, and since then has exacted a heavy toll among ultra-Orthodox Jews.
After the first wave of cases last year, in-person gatherings at houses of worship were banned by health officials and then later were heavily regulated to keep religious services from turning into superspreader events.
In November, the Supreme Court overturned Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s restrictions on houses of worship, and since then, neither the city nor the state has moved to impose any new restrictions. Instead, each place was allowed to set its own rules.
Restrictions have slowly eased over the last several months as more and more people have gotten vaccinated. But while local officials have begun to require proof of vaccination for indoor activities, like indoor dining or going to a gym or museum, similar mandates have not been introduced for religious services.
Only a small number of Jewish congregations in New York have decided to hold online-only events this year for the High Holy Days, among them Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan, which describes itself as the largest L.G.B.T. synagogue in the world.
Community leaders say pandemic-related precautions are inspired not just by public health guidance but by a fundamental tenet of the Jewish faith itself — pikuach nefesh, the idea that protecting human life is the most important religious value of all.
“In my opinion, the mask is more important than the prayer book this year,” said Jeffrey Cahn, the executive director of Romemu, a popular synagogue with branches in Manhattan and Brooklyn. He said synagogue officials bought 1,000 masks at just under $1 each to hand out to worshipers who may arrive without one.
“The rabbi may not like me saying that, but he would probably agree with me at the end of the day,” he said. “Protection of life is always more important than any other commandment or ritual in Judaism.”
The leadership of Romemu debated for days over what to do about the High Holy Days, Mr. Cahn said. In the end, they decided to hold holiday services in three locations: one in a tent outside the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture; another an adults-only, indoor service on the Upper West Side at Redeemer Presbyterian Church; and a family service for those with children under the age of 12 on the roof of Romemu’s building on West 105th Street. (Those under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination.)
The congregation also decided to require that all adult attendees be vaccinated, despite the presence of what Mr. Cahn called “a vocal and not insignificant group” of congregants who oppose the vaccine. He declined to elaborate on their anti-vaccine arguments, but noted that many in the community were drawn to natural medicine and skeptical of pharmaceutical companies.
“We are not judging, we are not commenting, it doesn’t matter,” said Mr. Cahn. “Not because we don’t care, but because the reason that someone is unvaccinated doesn’t matter. All that matters is the fact they are unvaccinated and the impact they could have on themselves and others.”
Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
- Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
- Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
- New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement does not begin until Sept. 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
Rabbi Buchdahl said she believed the overwhelming majority of people who worship at Central Synagogue were fully vaccinated. Nevertheless, all attendees are required to be vaccinated and masked.
Aside from the services at Radio City Music Hall, the synagogue will also simultaneously hold services at its Moorish revival sanctuary in Midtown, where masks and vaccines will be required and attendance will be capped at 50 percent.
In-person family services have been canceled, and any children at the two services will be required to show a negative P.C.R. test, Rabbi Buchdahl said.
“You have to be able to plan for whatever your best hope is,” she said. “This is not the situation we expected to be dealing with.”
Many ultra-Orthodox groups, whose members are taught to eschew technology on the Sabbath, have chafed at coronavirus rules in New York and the shift to online worship that other congregations have embraced and have held large in-person events throughout the pandemic.
Many of these events — including weddings, funerals and secret indoor schooling — sparked tensions with city and state authorities. An ultra-Orthodox umbrella group, Agudath Israel of America, successfully sued New York State last fall over pandemic restrictions that were thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Some ultra-Orthodox congregations have been worshiping in person since the early days of the pandemic, including during the High Holy Days last year. Most other synagogues across the New York region celebrated the holidays in their sanctuaries, parking lots or in outdoor tents with requirements like face masks, social distancing or limits on the number of people who could attend.
Motti Seligson, a spokesman for the Chabad movement, a Hasidic sect that is one of the largest Jewish organizations in the world, said in an email that Chabad centers across the country would be “hosting safe, in-person High Holiday services, many of them outdoors, all in keeping with guidelines from local authorities.”
Some ultra-Orthodox leaders have also taken steps in recent weeks to combat vaccine hesitancy in their communities with public service announcements, like one recorded in a mixture of Yiddish and English by a group of rabbis from Far Rockaway, Queens, and the Five Towns area of Long Island.
“We haven’t lived through enough?” said Rabbi Yaakov Bender of Yeshiva Darchei Torah of Far Rockaway in one of the announcements. “We as a community have to realize, that if 99 percent of doctors say take the shot, we take the shot!”