June 18, 2024
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The Effects of COVID on Shul: Before and After

Even though COVID is terrible, I miss the way shul was in the spring.

I know, it may sound odd to be nostalgic for the days of mandatory masks and social distancing. But as  shul goes back to being “normal,” I’ve realized that when everything was definitely abnormal, I enjoyed davening more than I thought at the time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not nostalgic for the days of the spring of last year when there was no shul. And I’m also not yearning for the days of last winter where we had all moved inside for shelter, but were still dealing with a very much watered-down shul experience.

What I miss is the shul of just after
Pesach. Rabbis were back to giving speeches, shuls held events (though they had to be outside half the time), kiddish was back (though also outside), and things were starting to get a bit more normal.

But those days are now behind us. We have continued to try to get things back to normal despite the surge of Delta. It has recently occurred to me that some of the newer normal is actually not as good as the old new normal of just a few months ago.

Over the course of the last couple of weeks, I’ve been to a few different shuls in a few different communities. The return of kids to shul is a welcome one for me. I enjoy seeing a kid get up there, face his fears, and sing Adon Olam while swimming in a talis meant for somebody three times his size.

But kids in shul pose a problem as they aren’t vaccinated (at least, those under 12). I’ve seen shuls struggle recently with what to do about the issue when some kids come into shul without a mask. Sometimes the parents are trying valiantly to get their kids to comply and sometimes, well, they aren’t.

There are also the parents who feed their kids in shul. Personally, this isn’t something that I would do before COVID. I was in one shul recently where somebody had to actually make an announcement about kids not being allowed to eat in the sanctuary.

Nobody wants to be the mask police, which is why we have this issue. I’m certainly hoping that many of the issues surrounding kids will be helped by getting kids vaccinated. But for now, this is the world we live in.

There are also issues that are certainly products of the COVID era without being directly related to the virus. One very simple example is the talking in shul. When everybody was sitting in individual seats that were socially distanced, talking wasn’t an issue. You can’t easily talk during davening when you aren’t actually near anybody else. Now that our seats are no longer distanced, the talking has returned. It feels like it’s louder than before, but this could be just my perception because I had gotten used to the quiet.

I’m not really a shusher and nobody wants to be a shusher. I’ve even been known to respond on occasion when somebody talks to me during davening. But I was able to concentrate way better during davening four months ago when our chairs were distanced.

Another issue that isn’t strictly virus-related is the attire that I’ve seen recently in shul. I’ve seen way more casual attire in shul on Shabbat than I ever saw before COVID. I, like almost everybody else, dressed a bit more casually on Shabbat during the period of COVID when there was no shul. But when shul reopened, I put the suit and tie back on.

I’m a suit and tie guy, but I understand that not everybody is. And that’s fine. It would appear that people figured out that you can wear more casual clothes to shul and nothing will really happen to you. Which is probably true, because we aren’t in high school and there’s no official dress code for shul. Even if there was, somebody would have to be the annoying teacher and I don’t see any volunteers.

I understand that some will see this as an indictment of the congregants and that others will see this as a plea for the powers that be to do something. I guess it’s both and neither.

In terms of the powers that be, I do not envy the position that they are being put in. When our rabbis took their jobs, they certainly didn’t think they’d have to talk to members of their congregation about their kids wearing masks in shul. We don’t really want our rabbaim, gabbaim and elected shul leaderships to give out citations for these things.

I also don’t really blame the population in general. It’s hard to fight with your kid about wearing a mask; it’s easy to give your kid a lollipop to occupy them; talking during davening is tempting; and wearing a suit and tie isn’t the most comfortable thing in the world. But shul is about davening and we need to remember that.

The only way to really solve some of these issues is for the community itself to try to be better about these things. Will there still be times when the rabbi will have to give some mussar or the gabbai will have to be the shusher? Sure. But we should be doing our best to make their lives easier. They’ve had to deal with so many issues trying to make shul even happen at all that the least we can do is lend them a hand and not make them (the good guys) be the “bad guys” here.

Coming out of the Yomim Noraim, let’s try to remember that our shul is our version of the Beit Hamikdash. Hopefully, we can all do our part to make davening a little better.


Nati Burnside lives in Fair Lawn and is a man of many interests. The opinions in this piece are his own, but feel free to adopt them.  In fact, he encourages you to do so.

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