Milwaukee-area synagogues are easing back into in-person activities as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides and new information emerges about the efficacy of the vaccine.
Several local congregations moved to remote operations when Covid-19 began spreading in the area in spring 2020. They found ways to deliver their services with virtual tools, such as opportunities to worship and learn from home. When the weather cooperated, some hosted outdoor services.
The presence of the coronavirus has waned substantially since a surge last fall. Milwaukee County recorded about 1,000 new cases each day during a portion of November. By late May, the count of new daily cases dwindled to fewer than 100.
With the relative burden of disease down and vaccines available, the leaders of Milwaukee-area congregations are contemplating how to move forward, as well as what their synagogues could look like in a post-pandemic world. They’re balancing the desire to provide an in-person community with ongoing questions about safety and the potential to expand accessibility with digital tools.
Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun
Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun in River Hills, for example, shut down its building in March 2020 and relied on streaming technology to offer worship and education, said executive director Andrew Appel.
Recently, he said, the Reform synagogue held its first limited-attendance, hybrid Shabbat service. The phased reopening is guided by a task force of congregants with different expertise.
“It was a combination of what we are hearing, what the rules are, what we’re allowed to do and, of course, combining with what the leadership is comfortable with in trying to keep both our clergy and our staff and our congregants safe while we’re worshiping together in any way we can,” Appel said. He said the synagogue has not set a target date to reopen in full. The congregation will monitor the vaccine roll-out and the area’s disease burden, he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shared guidance in May that people who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 do not need to wear face coverings in many scenarios.
Based on that guidance, Appel said the synagogue increased the capacity in its sanctuary to 45, with masks required unless a person is speaking behind Plexiglass. The congregation also is considering a socially distanced, outdoor kiddush.
When a full reopening eventually arrives, he said some of the shul’s learnings and new technological capabilities could be integrated into its operations moving forward.
“It’s hard to say anything is positive about the pandemic; it’s a horrible, horrible thing, but I think it has opened our eyes to opportunities to reach our people in ways that we hadn’t before,” Appel said.
“We’re not going to go back to the way things were before. We’re going to only go forward.”
Congregation Shalom in Fox Point learned that same lesson, said executive director Linda Holifield. The synagogue has followed local rules and advice from a task force of congregants to decide whether to hold in-person events.
Holifield said the reopening plan is structured around gating criteria related to Covid-19 transmission.
Congregation Shalom has not set a target date for a full reopening, she said; that will be determined by the data. Asked after the initial interview about the CDC’s latest guidance, Holifield said the congregation had not yet decided how it would factor into reopening.
Whenever that full reopening day comes, she said, some of the virtual offerings the Reform synagogue has developed during the past year will continue.
“We want to maintain that, because it’s given us an opportunity to connect with people who otherwise might not be present for in-person services,” Holifield said.
Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid
Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid, a Conservative synagogue in Glendale, as of early May had resumed Saturday morning services with limited capacity, said executive director Don Shane. A task force advised on a reopening plan, reviewing transmission data every other week.
The shul is moving to eliminate most restrictions, according to Shane, but the timeline was unclear at Chronicle press time.
At Temple Menorah, another Conservative congregation in Milwaukee, Rabbi Gil-Ezer Lerer said he is overseeing a slow reopening process that he does not want to rush. The synagogue has held some outdoor services during the past year, including for the high holidays.
As the spread of Covid-19 grew more severe in Wisconsin last fall, Lerer said Temple Menorah closed in October and did not reopen until the spring, reintroducing outdoor Shabbat services and slowly adding on others.
Temple Menorah has used digital tools to offer morning minyan and adult education. As a traditional congregation, Lerer said the synagogue will not stream services for Shabbat or major holidays.
With a growing local vaccination rate and slowed transmission, Lerer said he is making the final decisions about which services Temple Menorah will offer, with guidance from doctors and others with subject-matter expertise.
“We try to cut down on the singing part, we try to make the services a little bit quicker so we don’t congregate too long,” Lerer said. “I’m trying to make people feel comfortable so they’ll come back. And I need to feel comfortable. I don’t like to stand close to people. We take full precautions here.”
Lerer said the CDC’s new guidance might accelerate Temple Menorah’s reopening, but he wants to continue to exercise caution.
Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah
Rabbi Wes Kalmar of Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Glendale, said he is slowly moving the synagogue back toward normal operations, with guidance from health experts. As more people are immunized against the coronavirus, Kalmar said congregants are still asked to wear masks unless they are fully vaccinated, but ASKT reduced its physical distancing requirement from six feet to three. The congregation also is making plans for more in-person activities, he said.
But Kalmar said he doesn’t want to simply resume pre-pandemic operations when the threat of Covid-19 subsides.
“I really feel that as a synagogue and as a community, we need to do even better than going back to normal,” Kalmar said.
For ASKT, Kalmar said that means improving its outreach to people who are in need, as well as reaching the community through different media. He has started emailing a video of himself delivering a sermon, for example.
“We plan to continue taking those things that we’ve learned and making ourselves more accessible, more available,” Kalmar said.
Chabad of the East Side
Chabad of the East Side has been phasing in in-person programs as the vaccine becomes more widely available, said Rabbi Yisroel Lein. He said he is making decisions about reopening based on orders from Milwaukee’s health department – which dropped its restrictions and mask mandate June 1 – as well as input from health experts and a sense of what makes congregants comfortable.
Lein said he does not have a target date for when Chabad of the East Side will more closely resemble its pre-pandemic form. The CDC’s guidance increased some congregants’ comfort removing their masks indoors, Lein said, but he anticipates many activities will be outside during the summer. He recently ordered outdoor seating, with that expectation in mind.
A factor he is weighing is children’s access to the vaccine. Most recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization to administer Pfizer’s vaccine to people between ages 12 and 15.
Temple Beth El in Madison
Milwaukee-area congregations are not alone in weighing questions about when to reopen and how. Stefanie Kushner, the executive director at Temple Beth El in Madison, said a task force is guiding the congregation through its reopening plan, keeping eyes on metrics surrounding Covid-19 transmission in the community.
She could not be reached by press time, after the initial interview, about how the federal vaccine and mask guidance would affect those decisions.
Temple Beth El has had some indoor services, she said. The congregation requires reservations and masks, checks guests’ temperature and seats households together in distanced pods. Kushner said the synagogue is looking to expand those opportunities.
The congregation is revamping its audio and visual equipment so it can continue to offer virtual worship opportunities, even when the synagogue returns to full-capacity, in-person services, Kushner said.
“We found that we had people more engaged with Friday night worship than we did when it was only in person,” she said. “We also realized that by only offering in-person, those that had physical reasons why they couldn’t come to temple, or geographical reasons why they couldn’t come to our building, were being excluded. Continuing to offer live streaming is also just a point of inclusivity.”
Is your synagogue also working through changes? If you’d like to see your congregation included in future coverage, email Chronicle@MilwaukeeJewish.org.