Dispatches: Hamilton synagogues reluctantly curb in-person High Holiday services

Temple Anshe Sholom, in Hamilton Ont., will hold outdoor services over the High Holidays, as it did earlier this summer.

Most Jews in the cities and suburbs west of Toronto will gather around their computers, cellphones and tablets to mark the High Holidays for the second consecutive year.

The two Reform and two Conservative congregations in Hamilton, Halton and Niagara regions will rely on technology to observe most of the Days of Awe while allowing some strictly controlled in-person events.

Only Hamilton’s Orthodox synagogue, which does not use technology on Shabbat and holidays, is planning for tightly managed in-person services.

For the liberal congregations it’s a question of choosing health and safety over in-person services for most observances.

At Oakville’s Reform Shaarei-Beth El Congregation, for example, Rabbi Stephen Wise said only 80 people will be permitted in the 250-seat main sanctuary, and they will have to be double vaccinated, masked and socially distanced from all but their families.

“We’re leaving it up to people to decide for themselves, but because of the response I’ve been getting, I’m not sure we’ll even get the 80 we’ve allowed,” Rabbi Wise said.

The congregation will hold an in-person tashlikh service at a creek running through its backyard on the first day of Rosh Hashanah

“There’s no right or wrong way to do this,” Rabbi Wise added. “We’ve been living with COVID for the last year and we’re going to be living with COVID for the foreseeable future, if not forever.”

Temple Anshe Sholom, Hamilton’s Reform shul, plans an outdoor family service in a neighbouring park for the first day of Rosh Hashanah and an in-person gathering in its main sanctuary for the second day. Other than those events, all its observances will be conducted over Zoom.

Rabbi Jordan Cohen said the board of directors and a special task force gathered all the advice possible before deciding to go with online services.

“Our consultations were extensive with public health, and the medical people are all concerned about a fourth wave,” he said. “They all said we have to absolutely guarantee that everyone is fully vaccinated.”

Among the people offering advice was mathematician David Earn, a member of the synagogue who also sits on Ontario’s Science Advisory Table on COVID.

All the temple’s planned events for Yom Kippur will be conducted online except for an afternoon crafts and story time program for children. That will be carried out in the park next door.

“We’ve had a few complaints from some of our regulars that we aren’t offering everything in person,” Rabbi Cohen said. “We felt it was important to offer something in person.

“We’re not happy about having to do it this way, but we decided early on that, for us, health and safety would take precedence over ritual matters.”

After the High Holidays, Rabbi Cohen said the temple hopes to ease back into in-person services starting in October. Even then, however, livestreaming will remain a part of the program. In-person services will also be moved from a small chapel into the main sanctuary to ensure proper distancing.

At Beth Jacob Synagogue, Hamilton’s Conservative shul, plans call for in-person services for the High Holy Days, with a livestream option.

“We are taking all the precautions we can,” said Rabbi Hillel Lavery-Yisraeli. “Everyone will have to be double vaccinated and there will be no children allowed in the main sanctuary.”

The congregation, he said, was clear that members want a return to in-person gatherings.

“Virtually all of our adults are properly vaccinated, and we felt it was time to gather because there was a demand for it from our members,” Rabbi Lavery-Yisraeli said.

In St. Catharines, Conservative Congregation B’nai Israel’s building will be dark and quiet for the holidays.

“We have an older congregation here, lots of people in their 60s, 70s and 80s,” said office administrator Serge Chriqui. “Most of our members have been double vaccinated, but we are still being cautious. There’s no knowing just how COVID is going to rear its ugly head, so we thought this was the safest way to go.”

Adas Israel congregation, the Orthodox shul in Hamilton, plans multiple in-person services. Pre-registration is required and everyone entering the building will be screened. Masks, social distancing and the use of hand sanitizer will all be required.

Whether to attend or not, says a note of the shul’s website, is a matter of personal choice.

“Preservation of life is one of the highest of Jewish values and no one should feel pressured to attend,” it states. “As a community we respect each and everyone’s health choices.”

This week The CJN’s reporters will be reporting on how communities across the country will be celebrating the High Holidays.