Dispatches: Winnipeg rabbis are urging the community to get vaccinated

Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Winnipeg will be empty this year, as High Holidays services are being held online.
Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Winnipeg will be empty this year, as High Holidays services are being held online.

Some synagogues in Winnipeg are welcoming congregants back inside their doors this September—but Shaarey Zedek won’t be one of them.

After extensive discussions, the board of directors decided to offer virtual services again this year for the High Holidays, with no in-person attendance.

“Although vaccination rates continue to rise, and infection rates continue to fall, we feel it is still too soon to return to large gatherings at the shul,” they said, noting the rise of the variants as well.

In order to make the High Holiday services as accessible and wide-reaching as possible, Shaarey Zedek is also eliminating tickets and broadcasting all services on YouTube, Facebook and the synagogue’s website for free.

“When we cannot be together in the shul, we can still be apart together, united by our heritage, traditions, and our synagogue community.”

Congregation Etz Chayim, a Conservative synagogue, will also hold virtual services, along with 100 people in person. These attendees must be fully vaccinated, show proof of vaccination, and also wear masks.

“It will be similar to last year, except for having more people in the synagogue,” said Rabbi Kliel Rose, adding that will make it easier for leaders.

“Last year was lovely, it went better than we imagined,” he said. “But there was a void in not having people physically present. That is so much a part of worship life.”

The congregation will also have a virtual blowing of the shofar, based on a halachic justification where the obligation to hear the shofar can be done through amplified electronic means in cases of extreme duress.

The Chabad Lubavitch synagogue will have limited in-person services this year. Worshippers don’t have to be fully vaccinated, but they will need to wear masks, said Rabbi Boruch Heidingsfeld.

Seats will be placed at a distance of approximately two metres apart. Members of the same household can sit closer together.  

Chabad is also offering an alternative outdoor service of shofar blowing on both days of Rosh Hashanah in its parking lot and in over a dozen neighbourhood parks.

In advance of the High Holidays, the Winnipeg Council of Rabbis released a statement about the importance of getting vaccinated.

“Those who are eligible to be vaccinated and refuse to do so endanger the lives of others,” they stated, adding “We want to make it clear that all COVID rules, including the wearing of masks, must be adhered to in the strictest manner.

“The medical profession has unequivocally stated the need for everyone eligible to be vaccinated, and to wear masks wherever and whenever required. On these points as well, Jewish law is also unequivocal in its position.”

The group of rabbis from five city synagogues, based the statement on the TalmudTractate Chulin (10a), which states “danger (to health) is more severe than prohibitions” and on Pikuach Nefesh—the principle that saving a life “overrides almost all Torah laws.”

Rabbi Rose, a member of the Council, said the group unanimously agreed with the statement.

“It was a very easy decision to make,” he said. “There was no hesitation on the part of any member.”

Creating the statement was a moving experience, he said, since it is rooted in Jewish faith and tradition.

“The ancient rabbis couldn’t have had a pandemic like this in mind, but it is great we can rely on their wisdom today,” he said. “It’s very powerful to see how applicable and relevant it is to our daily lives in 2021.”

At his own congregation, Etz Chayim members are “very supportive” of the vaccination requirement.

The Council itself can’t take a stand on every issue, he said, but the pandemic is “of paramount importance.”

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