Friday, July 10, 2020

The same rabbinic group that closed Bergen County’s in-person shul services and minyanim on March 11—the first in the country to do so, followed by virtually all others worldwide—has begun taking measured steps toward reopening. Following the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America’s release of guidance and recommendations for reopening following the COVID-19 outbreak, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC) informed the community that it intended to wait a full two weeks after the country and state officially approved in-person meetings comprising more than 10 people, before establishing services again.

Even then, shul observances will be conducted in a vastly different manner, including that once the Torah is read again, only the baal korei (prayer leader) will handle the sefer Torah and chant all the aliyot. All minyan-goers, who must wear masks, are also expected to bring their own prayer books and do some prayers at home to limit potential interactions. All social-distance protocols will remain in place for these outdoor-only minyanim.

The first Bergen County minyanim are tentatively scheduled for Thursday, June 4, with 19 or fewer people in attendance at each minyan. Minyan attendance is expected to be recorded by shul designees, and anyone who has been sick will be expected to have been cleared by a doctor before joining. Attendees are asked to stick to their assigned minyan.

“Until now, individual shuls uniformly followed the directions of the RCBC by staying closed. Now, the shuls will take on the specifics in planning their minyanim,” said RCBC president Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz, of Teaneck’s Congregation Shaare Tefillah. “Shuls are guided by the baseline protocols that were designed by the RCBC and will tailor them to the contours of each shul community. They will factor in demographic, logistic and other considerations. Some may decide to wait longer or to open minyanim in gradual stages.”

The Vaad of Metrowest, in Essex and Union counties, also communicated its intention to restart minyanim on June 4, cognizant that some shuls in New York and elsewhere have begun meeting already. The Vaad HaRabonim of Raritan Valley, encompassing communities in Highland Park, Edison and the environs, announced a return to minyan-davening beginning in the near future at each shul’s discretion, with similar protocols in place. The Passaic-Clifton community set in place a protocol for outdoor backyard minyanim beginning on May 26, with gabbaim appointed to manage groups meeting in backyards of 12 to 14 people. Passaic-Clifton’s community is collaborating through a “Covid-19 Task Force” operating with the endorsement of the rabbanim of Passaic-Clifton (https://www.pccovidupdate.com/outdoor-minyanim). The outdoor minyanim establishment letter noted the taskforce was following guidance provided by various rabbinic groups, including the Vaad HaRabonim of Baltimore.

The RCBC, in its letter to the community on May 26 (https://www.rcbcvaad.org/), added that these initial minyanim might not be for everyone. “Anyone who has any hesitation is encouraged to continue davening at home, including rabbis. Additionally, individual shuls may build additional precautions based on their own assessments and based on the unique circumstances of each shul,” the letter stated.

The Vaad of Raritan Valley added a clarifying point. “These minyanim are a reshus [permitted], and not a chiyuv [obligation]. No one should feel compelled at this time to be “moser nefesh” [to endanger a life] in order to attend one of these minyanim, if he feels his circumstances warrant more caution and protection. He should continue to daven at home until he feels that attendance would be the proper course for him. We also strongly discourage any private minyanim from forming in backyards or street corners and implore the community to join their respective shul minyanim as we slowly and carefully reintroduce shul life back into our daily routines.”

Congregation Beth Aaron’s Rabbi Larry Rothwachs reached out to his community to express his understanding that many congregants in his Teaneck neighborhood had held a hope that the relaxing restrictions would allow them to congregate for Shavuot tefillah. “While I know that many continue to experience profound disappointment, frustration and pain with the realization that we will have to celebrate another Yom Tov without the experience of tefillah b’tzibbur [praying with the community], I encourage you to embrace the knowledge that we are, collectively and individually, continuing to fulfill the most preeminent and fundamental mitzvah in the entire Torah: the mitzvah to preserve and to protect life,” he said.

Rabbi Chaim Poupko, of Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah, echoed this view. “We know this plan may be disappointing to some who are eager to begin tefillah b’tzibbur now that gatherings of a certain number are legally permitted. Please know that we are inspired by that eagerness. The tefillot we have been praying as individuals have had a hand in bringing us to this moment and will continue to sustain us until we can rejoin for minyan, b’ezrat Hashem, on June 4.”

The June 4 first minyan date is contingent on the fact that there will not be a rise in COVID-19 cases following the state’s reopening and that minyan attendees will adhere to the now-standard protocols of standing 6 feet away from one another, wearing masks and meeting only out-of-doors. The RCBC also specifically recommended against “minyan hopping,” and asked that no one congregate before or after minyanim.

“Anyone who is immunocompromised, over 60 years old, obese, has heart disease, is on dialysis, has liver disease or has another compromising condition, is strongly urged to continue to daven at home and to consult with your physician to determine whether it is a good idea to join a minyan. Similarly, anyone who lives with such a person should consider continuing to daven at home,” the letter stated. Congregation Rinat Yisrael’s Rabbi Yosef Adler shared that he personally would not be able to join a minyan at this time, and Rabbi Rothwachs shared that he was not yet comfortable joining a minyan.

Stating that the reopening of minyanim are “remarkably complex and multifaceted," Rabbi Rothwachs added his cautionary perspective. “I feel that it is imperative that anyone who does choose to participate in outdoor minyanim, as per the recommended schedule, does so in strict and complete compliance with all of the conditions and instructions that will be included in the guidelines,” said Rabbi Rothwachs.

Congregation Beth Abraham’s Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger, of Bergenfield, expressed hope that these new minyanim would be a harbinger of a return to “a normalcy that builds on our renewed appreciation of our personal strengths, our family, our communities and Hashem’s mastery.

“We can see the light at the end of the tunnel and soon, b’ezrat Hashem, we can begin to prepare for the reshaping of our communal davening. Reshaping, though in limited gatherings, nevertheless unlimited in its focus and embrace of tefillah and the sanctity of a minyan,” he said.

Rabbi Adler sought to assure his community that the slow reopening would take in mind both rabbinic and medical permissibility. “The fact that the government has relaxed its standard and allowed public gatherings of 25 people does not override the halachic decision-making process,” said Rabbi Adler, in a letter to his community. “We have consulted with many doctors who have opined that the recommendation of the OU to wait two weeks after the governor’s announcement before validating the opening of minyanim. This decision was affirmed by Rabbis [Hershel] Schachter, [Mordechai] Willig and Asher Weiss, giving the RCBC the halachic guidance as to what is appropriate,” he said.

By Elizabeth Kratz