coronavirus

Agudath Israel of America issues ‘road map’ for the safe reopening of shuls

Don't rush it, Agudah says

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On Friday, Agudath Israel of America issued this statement:

We are all encouraged to see several states ease, or begin talks of easing, the long and difficult quarantine which has successfully slowed the progress of COVID-19. We pray that the trajectory witnessed in several states continue its downward trend until this menace is totally eradicated.

Notwithstanding our eagerness to “return to normal,” Agudath Israel of America reminds our constituents that the road to recovery will, and should be, deliberate. Easing restrictions abruptly and without closely monitoring its impact risks forfeiting the gains achieved by enduring this difficult quarantine.

For this reason, at the direction of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, Agudath Israel has worked closely with prominent rabbonim and infectious disease specialists to develop A Roadmap for Rabbonim and Community Leaders to Safely Reopen Our Kehillos.

The goal of this comprehensive document is to lay out a plan to return to davening b’tzibbur in a safe and halachicaly sanctioned way. Even if your state – like New York – has not yet eased restrictions, there should be a clear, advance game plan for how to move forward when it does. The Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah-approved guidelines contained in the Roadmap are designed to achieve this purpose.

• • •

Safely Reopening Our Kehillos — A Roadmap for Rabbonim and Community Leaders

GENERAL GUIDELINES:

  1. Our communities have overwhelmingly followed difficult social distancing mandates during the unprecedented pandemic of COVID-19. After months of quarantine, all of us are desperate to return to a semblance of normalcy and observe Torah and tefillah as we are accustomed.
  2. However, no activity may begin until local governmental and rabbinic authorities deem this activity safe and allowable. These Guidelines do not imply that any community has reached Phase 1 or 2. One of the purposes of this document is to provide a roadmap so that, after local governmental guidance and community rabbonim fully sanction an action, this document will provide recommendations for how these actions can safely and halachically be performed.
  3. The below was constructed with leading rabbonim and infectious disease specialists and other doctors, and has the approval of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah. The close, social nature of our communities requires specific protocols. We want to ensure our safety, not just strictly follow the law. Governmental regulations were not designed to address the realities of someone davening at a bustling shul with multiple minyanim daily; attending kiddushim; large families having a Shabbos meal together; children from multiple families playing together - perhaps all on a single day! An abrupt return to all of this, while tempting, risks our communities suffering reversals of whatever gains were achieved during the difficult months of quarantine endured.
  4. Moreover, governmental actions must balance relaxing health quarantines with political and economic considerations. Halachah, which places guarding one’s life and health above such considerations, may thus arrive at different recommendations. We need our own guidance, tailored to our own realities. These guidelines provide a national floor of safety protocols, irrespective of state and local differences.
  • Practically, this means that if a local government states that gatherings of 25 are now allowed without masks if social distancing is observed, WE would still restrict our davening to a minyan of 12-14 and only while observing the safety protocols described in Phase 1. And community rabbonim may rightfully decide that any loosening of restrictions is premature, based on the advice of local medical professionals that cases are not yet predictably trending downward or other factors.
  1. The below is a flexible framework for communities to adopt dependent on local circumstances on the ground. One community may be at Phase 2, while most communities nationally, as of this writing, are not yet up to Phase 1.

Klal Yisroel is wonderfully diverse. However, the rabbonim of each city or community should communicate and collaborate with each other and with local, respected infectious disease doctors and medical professionals. The reasons are twofold:

  • Many factors must be weighed before moving forward to a further Phase or if adapting this guidance. The factors listed in Guideline 6 along with population density, average community age, and other issues must be considered. Weighty and complex competing factors and priorities must be balanced. It is the rare Rav who possesses all the information required to singlehandedly arrive at an informed decision.
  • If different shuls or segments of a community adhere to different standards, it will be impossible to know what is working or not working for the community as a whole.
  1. These Guidelines contemplate a gradual relaxing of restrictions while closely monitoring if such relaxations are causing undue increases in COVID-19 cases. This is designed to ensure that no community’s COVID-19 cases spiral out of control. No community should contemplate progressing from a current shelter in place state to Phase 1 until it has seen a downward trajectory of sustained transmission decreases for a minimum of 14 days as described below and governmental authorities sanction it. The local Hatzolah and hospital representatives can provide community COVID-19 call volume and rates. Similarly, a community should not progress to a further reopening Phase until it has witnessed, for 14 days:
  • Sustained downward trajectory of documented COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the Orthodox Jewish population but also accounting for the general population; and,
  • The ability of the local healthcare infrastructure to comfortably manage the current medical caseload; and will also be dependent on,
  • The ability of the local medical infrastructure to monitor and control COVID-19 spread. A city that has testing widely available and is performing extensive contact tracing is better situated than one that is not.
  1. After carefully tracking these factors, the rabbonim, in cooperation with the medical experts, must decide whether a community may proceed to a subsequent, lessened degree of social distancing, retain the current level, or even revert to a previous level of social distancing if, G-d forbid, medical trends mandate it.
  2. Antibody testing is new and promising. However, at this point, many antibody tests have proven inaccurate and there are still open questions as to immunity and potential for reinfection. We cannot advocate different rules or minyan sizes for different individuals.
  3. This Guidance is subject to change. This virus is new and our understanding of it is changing. Phases 2 and 3 particularly will be subject to change as we hopefully move closer to those Phases.
  4. One final note: Many yir’ei Shomayim among us have not missed minyan or krias haTorah for years, perhaps decades. There is natural guilt associated with now missing these critical practices. Our rabbonim have assured us that the same Torah that idealizes Torah and tefillah in a large shul with many in attendance under normal circumstances now requires us to do so in a way that vigilantly preserves our health and the health of those around us.
  5. Practices to remain in place throughout all Phases:
  • Social distancing; avoiding handshakes and physical contact; frequent hand washing; avoiding touching face.
  • Anyone with a cough, shortness of breath, fever, chills, muscle pain, sore throat or new loss of taste or smell must stay home and not endanger his fellow mispallelim.
  • Masks must be worn when among people not living in your household during Phases 1 and 2. This includes at minyanimand applies to every age.
  • Those over 60, who are in a nursing home, have a lung disease, are immunocompromised, obese, have diabetes, or kidney or liver disease should maintain enhanced vigilance. Depending on Phase and the counsel of their posek, these individuals should daven individually for an extended period.

Click here for the Agudath Israel of America roadmap

Click here for a statement by the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America

Click here for a statement by 50 Five Towns and Far Rockaway rabbis

Click here for a statement by Rabbi Hershel Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere.

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