The High Holidays have arrived again, but the pandemic never left.
In fact, with the Delta variant now the predominant strain of COVID-19 in Wisconsin, the coronavirus is spreading rapidly. Wisconsin is typically reporting at least 1000 new daily cases of COVID-19 in recent weeks. The pandemic keeps changing and it’s impossible to predict exactly where it will go next.
Local congregations are once again forced to decide how to keep their congregants safe while maintaining the integrity of their services. The Chronicle spoke to a selection of shuls in late August about their plans for the High Holidays. If you’d like to see your synagogue included next time, contact Chronicle@MilwaukeeJewish.org.
Lake Park Synagogue
“We are closely watching the surge of COVID-19 in our area, (particularly the Delta variant), and will take appropriate action if there is any danger to our congregants,” Lake Park Synagogue President Dr. Ellis Avner wrote in an email to the Chronicle.
Lake Park Synagogue will usher in the new year with in-person services at its congregation close to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus. The services will be led by Rabbi Joel Dinin and will feature guest Chazzan Rabbi Ari Weber.
“As the only Modern Orthodox synagogue in Milwaukee we do not Zoom or live-stream our services,” Avner wrote.
Attendees must be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and non-members are required to receive prior approval from Dinin to attend the congregation’s traditional Orthodox services. A mask mandate for indoor activities is planned as of press time. The congregation’s sanctuary, which contains a mechitzah to separate men from women, is ventilated with a HEPA filtering system.
More information can be found at LakeParkSynagogue.org
“For the safety and well-being of others, we’re really operating under the guidance of pikuach nefesh, which means the safety of all lives in our community, and hoping that all people abide by that,” Jen Friedman, the director of engagement at Congregation Sinai, told the Chronicle.
Congregation Sinai is encouraging vaccination for all attendees, and the synagogue is asking families with children under 12 to attend the outdoor family services instead of the main indoor services.
Congregation Sinai will offer both in-person and virtual worship options for its five main High Holy Day services. All attendees must register in advance for these services, which include both the Rosh Hashanah morning service and the Yom Kippur morning service. In-person services will require masks and social distancing. Registration for members of Congregation Sinai is available from Aug. 9 to Sept. 2, while registration for non-members is available from Aug. 25 to Sept. 2.
Friedman stressed these plans may change based on the spread of the coronavirus in the lead up to the High Holidays. Synagogue leaders were to reconvene after Chronicle press time, “to assess, are we going forward with plan A, or do we need to revert to plan B?’” Friedman said. “And our plan B would be just essential personnel only in the sanctuary, so that would be our rabbi, cantor, professional choir singers and the staff, and that would be it. And we would be live streaming.”
Up-to-date information can be found at CongregationSinai.org/High-Holy-Days-Information.
Chabad of the East Side
Chabad of the East Side did not have a choice when it came to this year’s High Holy Day services, according to Rabbi Yisroel Lein.
The congregation’s sanctuary is not big enough to accommodate social distancing, and “I also want to give people the option of not wearing a mask during services,” Lein said.
Despite the high price of doing so — Lein described the move as “prohibitively costly” — the synagogue decided to hold all its services outdoors under tents. The decision was influenced by the spread of the Delta variant and new mask mandates in Madison and Chicago.
“Those three months (after people were first vaccinated), we really had our community coming back. We probably had 80% of our regulars back, even more,” Lein said. “But then once July hit, the numbers slowly started to creep up again, it became very clear to us that, no, we’re kind of moving backwards, and if we want people to show up, then we have to do something about it.”
While Lein acknowledges that weather could be an issue (“we don’t run the world, that’s what it boils down to”), he said he hopes the tents provide enough cover to mitigate the effects of any bad weather. Plus, he said, outdoor services can be beautiful and pleasant in the right conditions.
Details about Chabad of the East Side’s services for the High Holidays can be found at Cesmke.com/HighHolidays.
Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun
“Our job as Jewish professionals is to take care of the community,” said Andrew Appel, the executive director of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. “To save a life.”
Although Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun’s Board has settled on a plan for the High Holidays, Appel emphasized that the format for this year’s services could still change based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the North Shore Health Department.
The plan — in-person services with limited capacity, masked and vaccinated, and the option to participate by livestream — was developed by the congregation’s Safe Return Task Force. According to Appel, this group, “includes congregants who are regular folks, some of them are parents in the school, some are doctors and nurses as well.”
For children under 12, who cannot yet be vaccinated, Emanu-El intends to hold outdoor family services in addition to outdoor activities during the main services.
“Unfortunately, if the world continues to change, and it appears that our plan is no longer safe, then we would also move down the road toward less in-person,” Appel said.
The backup plan would be entirely remote services, which the congregation has already been holding successfully.
“It’s not everyone’s first choice to do the things we’re doing, what we have to do based on COVID-19, but we’re far from giving up,” Appel said. “We are very motivated to do a great job for everyone.”
More information about Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun’s plans for the High Holidays can be found online at CEEBJ.org.
“The words ‘set in stone’ are no longer a part of our vocabulary,” said Linda Holifield, executive director of Congregation Shalom.
Congregation Shalom is staying flexible for this year’s High Holidays, providing three options for worshippers, who have varying levels of comfort amidst the spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus.
Vaccinated and masked adults may choose to worship in the Fox Point synagogue, which will have a limited capacity of 400. Services in the sanctuary will be livestreamed, with pre-recorded versions available. Outdoor services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be offered off-site, and an Erev Rosh Hashanah service for families will also take place off-site and outdoors.
“There were a number of meetings with the clergy first to explore what might be possible,” Holifield said. “How to meet the needs of the congregants while also attempting to create a situation that would be mitigating the risk of transmission of COVID-19.”
The clergy presented its thoughts to a task force, which then gave its recommendations to the congregation’s executive committee.
Though the future of the pandemic is not at all “set in stone,” Holifield has faith in her congregation’s plans.
“We will have people in multiple locations, which is a little different than our past experience on High Holidays,” Holifield said. “But, given what we’re trying to accomplish, we feel good about what we’re able to offer.”
More information about Congregation Shalom can be found at Cong-Shalom.org.
Visit MilwaukeeJewish.org/Services to find schedules or links of available information for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah for in-person and virtual services at synagogues throughout the community.