As we begin to change our Covid policies at Beth Jacob, it needs to be stated that such changes are complicated and fraught. At bottom, our shul is faced with a conflict between two instincts that are in tension with one another – our desire to meet the needs of the majority of congregants who are eager to return to some form of normal shul life, and the imperative to be inclusive and welcoming to those who are not yet comfortable with the return (particularly those with compromised immune systems). People will feel safe coming into the building masked but without physical distancing, or gathering outside in a “masks optional” setting, at different speeds – some are excited to do so now, while others are still very cautious, and we must do our best to be sensitive to the diverse feelings of our members. The thought of excluding those in our holy community is unbearable…while the thought of remaining in a state of isolation and fragmentation at precisely the time when “normalization” is returning all around us (with the blessing of public health authorities at the state and federal level) is equally unbearable. The new policies formulated by the leadership of BJC seek to “square the circle” by ensuring that those who are not able to be physically present can gain access through Zoom and/or live streaming. In addition, by having at least some of the tefillot and programming outdoors we will enable those who are worried about being indoors to be physically present. We are in a period of transition, and hope that the changes outlined below succeed, to the greatest extent possible, in balancing the different needs of our diverse congregation. Please see the links below for specific information.
Rabbi Rubin’s reflections on and explanations of the new Covid policies at BJC
Why embark on this new path? The proposal for a new reopening policy represents a serious break from our Covid-related practices during the previous fifteen months and needs to be explained and justified. Some might wonder what the urgency is – can’t we just wait until the High Holidays to begin the return to normal shul life? Why not just preserve the status quo until the state reaches a rate of vaccinations of 70% (as of this writing, 66% of Minnesotans have received at least one vaccination shot)?
I believe the situation is indeed urgent and requires changes sooner rather than later. There are two reasons behind this urgency, in my view. The first is the overwhelming feedback I’ve received from congregants that they need the sense of community and human connection the shul offers. As we know, the pandemic has created a tremendous sense of loneliness and isolation, and members of BJC are suffering. We need to relieve that suffering by coming together again, in person. This is especially the case when federal and state authorities, upon whom we’ve relied for our health and safety guidance before the vaccine, are now allowing such gatherings.
Related to this is my very clear sense that the status quo is not sustainable. Both Rabbi Tamar and I (along with members of the staff) have discerned a distinct sense of what might be called “drift” – an ever greater number of shul members feeling less connected to BJC, and “voting with their feet” (or in this case, with their computers). I have spoken to a substantial number of people who’ve simply stopped showing up, and Rabbi Tamar has noticed the same trend among families with young children. Numbers are noticeably down on Shabbat morning – in the fall and winter we regularly had “number of screens” in the sixties and seventies, but during the last couple of months they’ve been down to the forties and fifties (this past Shabbat we reached a peak of 49 screens, but there were only 27 actual human faces participating in the service at its peak). Moreover, we’ve repeatedly failed to attract even ten people to in-person davening during the last six weeks (this past Shabbat was a welcome exception!). When asked why people haven’t been coming, attendees of a recent Kiddush schmooze after davening (about 25 people) answered almost in unison – what has been on offer (distancing, capacity limits, masks, no food) is simply not appealing. They want to come back to shul, but only if it’s “real,” meaning something resembling the old normal. More than one person noted that under current restrictions, in-person davening felt lonelier than being at home on Zoom! Finally, sitting in a mostly empty sanctuary while listening to someone at home leading davening is no one’s idea of a meaningful prayer experience.
The second reason for urgency is more abstract and is grounded in Jewish tradition.
We are obligated as Jews to engage with, live in, and improve the world. This obligation is suspended when our lives are in imminent danger – but only then. The Talmud famously explains that we have a great mitzvah to emulate God: “Just as God is gracious, so too must we be gracious,” and so on (Maimonides counts the emulation of God as the eighth positive mitzvah of the total of 613 positive and negative commands). Rav Yosef Soloveitchik expanded on this mitzvah to include the act of creation itself. Just as God is the ultimate Creator, so too are we. And just as God created the world, argued the Rav, so too are we called on to create the world – to bring into being flourishing communities, to build institutions and infrastructure, to make medical and technological innovations that improve society. He goes further, writing that not only are we commanded to create, but to re-create after a period of destruction – to rebuild after setbacks.
When danger to life and limb exists, we must retreat into our own spaces for the sake of safety. But when the danger recedes, we are called by the Holy One to get back to the holy path of mitzvot – to the task of making this world more just, compassionate, and sacred, to the extent that we’re able. As the Psalmist declares, et la’asot la-Ha-Shem…”it is time to work for God” (Psalms 119:126). Or perhaps even more apt, Kohelet insists that “there is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing” (3:5). We have endured too many missed embraces. Todah le-El Elyon, thank God Almighty, it is a time for us to embrace once again. The urgency is real.
Finally, on the question of requiring both vaccination shots plus 14 days in order for those over 16 to be physically present, this policy seems entirely justified and imperative to me. The Committee for Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement has ruled that taking the vaccine is a halakhic obligation because of pikuakh nefesh, saving life. While we need to be as welcoming as we can of those who want to enter the shul, and being welcoming and sensitive to the feelings of others are crucial guiding values for me and for our community, they are not the only values in the Jewish tradition. An even more important Jewish value is the preservation of human life. This is, in my view, the highest and most exalted of all Jewish teachings. Our sages go on at great length about this, saying clearly that almost every commandment in the Torah is outweighed by preserving life (only three aren’t – murder, idol worship, and sexual transgressions such as incest). Not only is one permitted to violate Shabbat or Yom Kippur to preserve life, one is obligated to do so. In this case, allowing unvaccinated adults to come into the synagogue may endanger the lives of others. Our effort to be welcoming to all is outweighed by the imperative to protect the health and life of all of our congregants, indeed, decisively outweighed by it. In Jewish tradition, the individual’s particular worries, concerns, and anxieties (in this case about taking the vaccine) are certainly seen as valid and important – but are absolutely outweighed by the health and well-being of the collective. Even in Western political philosophy, one’s rights to liberty have a clear limit – at precisely the point at which those rights impinge on the life and liberty of someone else.
As this letter is already quite long, I will avoid going into the specifics of the issue of unvaccinated children at shul. Simply not allowing unvaccinated children into the building is not an option, in my view. Children are now largely (though not entirely) in schools together, albeit masked, and the rate of Covid continues to and the rates of Covid transmission and hospitalization in the U.S. continue to decline rapidly. Suffice it to say that scientists now know that the risks of children getting Covid and having cases serious enough to be hospitalized is exceedingly rare; the consensus among public health professionals is that the danger of the pandemic to the well-being and lives of children is lower than the flu. Please see this article for more information:
That said, Rabbi Tamar and the Education Committee have created a sensitive and balanced approach to programming at children that I believe takes into account our desire to try to return to programming in (or outside of) the building while at the same time recognizing that people’s comfort levels, perceptions of safety, and unique health issues will vary greatly, and may shift gradually over time. We will work hard to ensure that to the greatest extent possible, all the members of this holy community, those who are in the building and those participating virtually, feel included, welcomed, and honored.
Bi-yedidut rabbah/with great affection,
Rabbi Adam Rubin
Senior Rabbi, Rabbi Morris J. Allen Chair in Rabbinics