Dispatches: Toronto synagogues grapple with COVID (again)

A drive-in Rosh Hashanah celebration at Ontario Place in Toronto—from the exhibit, “A Peoplehood: Amiut Yehudit.” (© Marnie Salsky)

Livestreamed services, proof of vaccination, outdoor prayers—it’s clear that as synagogues prepare to mark the new year of 5782, life is still far from normal.

As COVID case numbers begin to rise again, synagogues across Toronto are trying to plan for every scenario. When possible, services will be moved outdoors to lessen the risk of infection.

Synagogues scheduled to hold indoor services are greatly reducing their capacity and are guessing how many congregants will actually show up for what are traditionally the busiest days in the Jewish calendar.

“This has been a really difficult year to plan for the holidays because the situation is changing on a regular basis,” said Rabbi Jarrod Grover, who leads Beth Tikvah Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in north Toronto. “We’re trying to judge whether people want to come to synagogue or not, and how many people are likely to come.”

His synagogue made the decision to plan conservatively, he explained. “We were going to hold services in person but with the assumption that a large percentage of the congregation would still not be comfortable praying in person. We made the right decision.”

Beth Tikvah, like many non-Orthodox synagogues, will be livestreaming its services, something that did not happen pre-pandemic.

More controversial than livestreaming, however, was Beth Tikvah’s decision about a month ago to require that worshipers either be vaccinated or produce a recent negative COVID test. Since then, some, but not all, synagogues in the city have followed suit.

“It’s a Jewish law issue—that’s how we’ve approached it,” Rabbi Grover went on. “It’s not that I think this is good for our shul, it’s that it is forbidden by Jewish law for an unvaccinated person to gather in large crowds.”

The majority of congregants will probably attend services via livestream, as they did last year. With the right intentions, it is possible for adults to still have a meaningful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur online, he said.

But Rabbi Grover worries about children, who have been excluded from much of Jewish life during the pandemic.

“We are so limited in our ability to gather for youth programs,” he said. “This pandemic has been horrific on Jewish education of children.”

The pandemic, now disrupting a second year of High Holiday services, will feature in many sermons.  Rabbi Grover will be discussing the cracks that COVID has revealed both in people’s personal lives and in synagogue life.

“If we ignore this, which is what we tend to do, especially in the Jewish institutional world, if we just keep chugging along…we will have missed a tremendous opportunity.”

Last year, City Shul, a Reform congregation in downtown Toronto, welcomed the New Year at a drive-in movie theatre, with shul-goers safely ensconced in their cars. This year, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein hopes they will be able to meet outdoors on the second day of Rosh Hashanah to do tashlikh in the Don River and enjoy live klezmer music and “surround sound shofar blowing.”

Services on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be held indoors for fully vaccinated adults only, with very restricted numbers. Unlike previous years, City Shul will not be selling tickets, and intends to use just 25 percent of its space, although currently provincial guidelines allow for up to 50 percent capacity.

City Shul has been livestreaming its services throughout the year, and the technology has allowed the congregation to do things it normally would not have, such as show videos during a service, call on a virtual choir, and break down the cliques at kiddush by putting people into breakout rooms, Rabbi Goldstein said.

Synagogue leaders are keeping a close eye on the Delta variant and case numbers, and are prepared to move services online or perhaps open up to more congregants.

“It proves how much we’re willing to do, to be with the community in one way or another,” Rabbi Goldstein said. “We’re trying to move heaven and earth so that people can feel connected to a spiritual centre, and it just might be that heaven and earth can’t be moved this year.”

Fittingly, a topic of one of Rabbi Goldstein’s sermons this year will be flexibility.

“My job right now as a rabbi is to hold people through this uncertainty. That’s what I’m speaking about on Yom Kippur. Living with that uncertainty is almost maddening.”

At the same time, she said she’s never seen such gratitude from her community, even as plans change often.

“In 37 years in the rabbinate I’ve never experienced so much support… readiness to pivot, readiness to change. It’s been extraordinary.”

Orthodox synagogues, which do not use technology on Shabbat or the holidays, have no option but to meet in person, although many are offering outdoor services.

At Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto, a large Orthodox congregation in Thornhill, services will be offered both indoors and outdoors and will be slightly shorter than usual, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin said. Vaccinations are recommended, but not required.

“We’re trying to create a balance between normalcy and accommodation for COVID,” he said.

Outdoor services reached capacity limits within 24 hours of being advertised, he noted. “There are many people who feel comfortable coming back and there are many people who don’t feel comfortable coming back and we’re sympathetic to that.”

The BAYT met as a community during the pandemic as soon as it was permissible, but it’s been “the law-and-order congregation,” abiding strictly by health regulations, Rabbi Korobkin said, sometimes to the annoyance of members who wanted more relaxed rules, or sometimes, even stricter ones.

The pandemic’s impact will inevitably feature in Rabbi Korobkin’s sermons this year. “The human condition is quite resilient and we have demonstrated that over the last year and a half. Despite the tremendous inconveniences and the disruptions to our lives, we have learned how to adapt. For most people that adaptation has come at some price, but mostly people have been quite graceful about it,” he said.

“The second thing is we have to be quite optimistic. It’s going to take a little while longer for this virus to run its course. We have to be patient.”

At Makom, a diverse congregation in downtown Toronto, services will also be outside, in a tented courtyard. Makom’s usual meeting space is too small to allow social distancing and has been currently loaned to a food bank. Being outdoors also means there will be no need to ask about vaccination status and children may attend, explained Rabbi Aaron Levy.

A variety of sessions are being offered, including programs for families and interfaith couples, as well as chanting, meditation and traditional prayer services, to allow as many people as possible to participate.

Last year Makom’s High Holiday services were also held outdoors and about 250 people came to 27 different shifts. This year, while the synagogue was still fine-tuning its schedule a few weeks ago, it was clear that even more people were interested in attending, Rabbi Levy said.

“We’ve really thrown ourselves into outdoor services in general. It’s really a powerful and positive way of gathering together in real life to pray and reflect and learn.”

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