September 2020 -- Elul 5780-Tishri 5781,  Volume 26, Issue 9

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The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America Suggest High Holiday Guidance

The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America have set forth their guidance for synagogues for the upcoming High Holidays in light of the COVID 19 pandemic. “As we approach and plan for the upcoming Yamim Noraim, we do so with the recognition that this season provides us all with a critical anchor for the rest of the year, in several ways. First, during this time G-d decides our fate, as individuals, as communities, and as a world.  We therefore flock to the synagogue during this season, knowing the critical importance of our approaching G-d with prayer and teshuva.

“Second, the season’s focus on prayer and teshuva renews and recharges our connection to G-d and Torah, and provides us with the framework to define our most meaningful ambitions for the coming year.  And third, it is during this period that the synagogue truly serves as the rallying point for the community, bringing us all together more than at any other time in the year.  Men and women, young and old, come together in the synagogue for prayer and inspiration, to cry and to sing.


“Due to the pandemic, this year we must plan for a Yamim Noraim that will be very different than usual.  The requirements of social distancing will limit the capacity of our shul facilities and – in many cases – require us to subdivide into smaller groups.  Distancing and masking will challenge the feeling of community among the assembled.  Time limitations and other constraints may force the elimination of inspiring parts of the service.  And, most difficult of all, many members of the community may not be able to come to the synagogue at all.  But while the Yamim Noraim will be different, they can be profoundly meaningful.  Challenges should drive us to work creatively to overcome.


Rabbis, communal leaders, and community members, can and must work resourcefully to make this season memorable for its opportunities and not only for its limitations.  The myriad technical details involved in pandemic shul planning must not distract from the true focus of going to shul, and material efforts to accomplish things safely must not divert  from putting hearts and souls into the spiritual efforts of prayer and growth,” notes the document.


The following recommendations and guidelines were formulated based solely on information and advice available as of August 2020.  Shuls and communities should follow, at a minimum, the guidelines provided by local and national authorities, including the CDC and local health departments. Some of the recommendations include: Compliance; Seating Plans, which involve social distancing and mask wearing; Outreach to Members to ascertain members plans to attend services.


Shuls may consider providing additional minyanim for several reasons.  Buildings will have capacity issues due to distancing requirements.  Many people will require or prefer an outdoor option and/or a briefer service for health reasons.  And as many shuls will be unable to provide childcare services, parents of young children may require different minyan times to allow each parent to daven in shul while the other watches the children.  Proper shul planning will weigh using multiple spaces versus reusing the same space with early and late minyanim.


An appropriate precaution during shofar blowing would be to place a surgical mask over the wider end of the shofar, as this does not appear to alter the sound of the shofar blast.  Some may point the shofar out an open window or door, or near and towards the front wall or aron kodesh, facing away from the congregation.  A single shofar should not be used by multiple people, and no barrier should be placed between the shofar and the mouth of the one blowing the shofar.


Words of Torah inspiration and guidance are an essential part of the Yamim Noraim experience. While there is an outstanding array of quality Torah content that is available online and in print, there is no substitute to the messages of Torah that are communicated by personal, local mentors. Local rabbis should decide the Halachic solution that is most fitting for their community.