Dear Chevra,

As summer begins, we hope that this letter finds you well.  We write at this time with an update to some of our previous communications, in language that we hope can be of use and guidance to you in your leadership during such challenging times. While this document is written for our rabbinic colleagues, we welcome you to share it in whole or in part with staff, lay leaders, and congregants who would benefit from its message.

The prospects of entering the “Green Phase” in the Greater Philadelphia area has brought with it feelings of hope, but also great anxiety and uncertainty.  Institutions have communal, emotional, experiential and financial reasons to “re-open” – all of which are understandable.  However, given recent statements of public-health officials and national epidemiological trends, we urge you to exercise the greatest caution in implementing and enforcing necessary safety measures if your community chooses to resume in-person gatherings in line with the health department’s guidance, and also to resist a potential rush to re-open if you do not believe your community’s personal circumstances (or your personal situation) make this a responsible choice.

  • Please remember that, contrary to widespread misperceptions and dangerous leniencies, “green phase” still requires precautions of social distancing, masks, quarantine of vulnerable populations, and a preference for outdoor gatherings, and only when necessary.  (Information is abundant, overwhelming, and often confusing. This is one authoritative site from the state. Here are guidelines from the city of Philadelphia geared specifically towards religious institutions.)
  • The ways in which Jewish communities gather present specific additional risks.“Opening for business” is not the same thing as opening for extended services, which may include singing together over broad demographics.
  • Accordingly, because this is a matter of pikuach nefesh, we urge our institutions to be lifnim meshurat ha-din (taking an overabundance of caution), with care and strictures well beyond the minimal guidelines provided by officials.

The ambiguities of what the “green phase” means for synagogues and other Jewish organizations also leaves much room for individual interpretation.  In this context, we are mindful that rabbinic colleagues may be under considerable pressure to adjust their personal safety measures, beyond where they are comfortable.  To this end, we remind the lay leadership, institution professionals, and others:

  • Rabbis are human beings, with our own health concerns, family members’ with immuno-compromised vulnerability and co-morbidities, and personal comfort levels and fears regarding this pandemic.  We are not simply functional parts of an organization’s operations.
  • In this context, we are mindful of the rabbinic interpretation (BT Yoma 83a) of the verse from Proverbs (14:10), “Lev yode’a marat nafsho – one can appraise one’s own personal struggles and vulnerabilities [more authoritatively than even an expert].”  We implore lay leaders, senior supervisory colleagues, and others to use patience, compassion, and trust in respecting the boundaries and concerns over personal safety on the part of their rabbis and other staff – especially in this time where guidelines concerning “re-opening” are so ambiguous.
  • Some of the local cemeteries have lifted their attendance number limits.  The local funeral directors are also evolving their procedures and attendance caps for indoor and outdoor services.  This could put rabbis who are asked to officiate in awkward positions.  We recommend that rabbis clearly and proactively communicate your personal comfort levels and practices both to funeral directors and to grieving families if you are asked to be present at a service.

Finally, each Jewish community is making difficult decisions in this uncertain time, and we urge respect for one another. It is upon us to assume that each of our colleagues has good intentions as we seek to navigate these unique and unprecedented circumstances. We are all doing our best to balance the interest of our individual communities and our particular health considerations and those of our family members.  If we can be of support to you, or refer you to someone who might be of help, please do not hesitate to be in touch.

Praying for chizuk in these tough times,

Rabbis Annie Lewis and Eric Yanoff
Co-Presidents, Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia

[June 29, 2020]