Heading the Wrong Way: Delta brings back some synagogue Covid restrictions

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the United States. Credit: NIAID-RML via Wikimedia Commons.

With much less organized activity during the summer, increasing vaccination rates and Covid cases on a major decline, many congregations in the region started loosening up restrictions, holding in-person services for the first time since the pandemic began, even going back to semi-normal regarding kiddushes and lunches — and speculating about a mostly normal High Holy Day season.

Then the Delta variant took hold, and now many congregations are cutting back on what is allowed, and looking at Rosh Hashanah with a more skeptical eye.

On Aug. 11, Mobile’s Ahavas Chesed announced that it was immediately halting all in-person services and closing the building once more, and became the first congregation in the region to explicitly state that High Holy Day services would be virtual instead of in person. Mobile and neighboring Baldwin County have been the hottest spot in Alabama for the Delta variant. While conditions will be re-evaluated next month, the announcement stated “No in-person gatherings will take place until community spread has lessened. This includes High Holiday services.”

In Alexandria, Gemiluth Chassodim had been holding services in person and having Shabbat dinners for the last few months, but Rabbi Raina Siroty announced that their Covid safety team agreed to suspend all in-person services this month. “We are hopeful that our High Holy Day services will be in person, with everyone wearing masks and properly social distancing from one another,” she said.

Agudath Israel-Etz Ahayem, which was the first synagogue in the region to impose restrictions in March 2020 as the pandemic began, announced that as of Aug. 11 all in-person services were being suspended, and services will be livestreamed and on Facebook until further notice.

Most congregations that have announced a decision are continuing in-person services but reinstituting restrictions.

For Mobile’s Springhill Avenue Temple, the board approved limiting entry to those who are fully vaccinated, saying it is not meant to single out or denigrate anyone, but “with the sincere interest of the congregation as a whole.” They will “depend on those coming into the building to act in good faith” regarding the new guideline.

Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El reverted to the “yellow tier” on July 28, mandating masks and requiring reservations for attending services. Beth Israel in Jackson is also mandating masks and reservations, with a maximum capacity of 30. Because of the limit, reservations are for Beth Israel members only, and no walk-ins are allowed.

In Huntsville, Temple B’nai Sholom raised the maximum attendance to 65 with social distancing, with reservations suggested but not required. Masks are suggested for all, but not necessary for those who are fully vaccinated. Onegs are still on hold and “kibitzing” discouraged, with the service shorter and less singing.

Gates of Prayer in Metairie announced it will be requiring masks of everyone age five and up, and encouraging them for younger children. The congregation, which held the first major in-person event in late April with an outdoor music festival, is hosting the joint Reform Shabbat services for New Orleans this month. Next door, Beth Israel has reinstituted a mask requirement and has suspended kiddush lunches in a move they hope “will be short-lived.”

Birmingham’s Temple Beth-El has gone back to mandating masks throughout the building, and seating socially distant, with family pods. Participation on the bimah is limited, with masks and social distancing for everyone who goes up. Daily minyan has also been moved from the small chapel to the sanctuary, to better provide distancing.

Beth-El has also suspended indoor food service, after a to-go box was prepared for the Aug. 7 Shabbat service. Procedures are being established for outdoor food service for special occasions.

Pensacola’s Temple Beth El is also mandating masks and social distancing, blocking every other row in the sanctuary. Food will be served by kitchen staff.

The New Orleans Jewish Community Center announced that as of July 28, all individuals are required to wear masks throughout the facility, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated. Birmingham’s Levite Jewish Community Center also requires masks in the facility.

Birmingham’s N.E. Miles Jewish Day School, which held classes in person last year, begins this school year on Aug. 10 with masking still required. Visitors to the school will need to be vaccinated. Last year it was rare for anyone other than students or faculty to be in the building.

Temple Shalom in Lafayette is planning to hold its first in-person service since March 2020 on Aug. 27, including the first in-person visit of Student Rabbi Aaron Torop. The congregation will have hand sanitizer at the door, require masks for those who have not been vaccinated, and enforce six-foot distancing except for those in the same household.

Temple Beth El in Anniston was also planning its first in-person service for Aug. 20.

A scheduling casualty to Delta is the opening celebration for the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in New Orleans, which announced that due to rising uncertainty, it is postponing the events that were scheduled for Oct. 2 and 3. The event will be rescheduled, likely for next spring.

(Updated Aug. 11 with AIEA information and Ahavas Chesed closure).