On Friday morning, May 29, the director of security at Congregation Beth Tefillah stood in the middle of the synagogue’s driveway checking off each of the participants for the synagogue’s Shavuot service. If you had not preregistered for the abbreviated morning series of services, you didn’t get in.
A uniformed Sandy Springs police officer sitting in the front seat of his patrol car back up Beth Tefillah’s security. A neighborhood doctor from the congregation, who had 25 year of clinical experience, was there to answer any medical questions.
The banner behind the doctor outlined the requirements to attend any prayer service: Masks were required, social distancing was practiced and anyone who might have been exposed recently to the COVID-19 virus was barred.
The holiday services, held outdoors on the synagogue’s parking lot, were abbreviated and limited to a small number of worshippers. It was the first time since the pandemic closed synagogues in March that congregants had gathered in significant numbers for worship or other synagogue programs.
Rabbi Yossi New, who leads the synagogue affiliated with the Chabad chasidic movement, pronounced the carefully produced two-day series of holiday worship services a success.
“They went very, very well. We had each day five services. We had a maximum of 20 people and we had five services each day. And they worked very well.”
Rabbi New who has been leading personal morning services during the week for a small number of congregants, particularly those who needed to say kaddish, said the experiment in holiday worship during the pandemic got a thumbs up from his community.
“We got very positive response from our congregants. They all appreciate it, you know, to be able to have a synagogue service, especially the holiday, especially on a day when you have Yizkor. And the feedback we got is that people felt very comfortable. If there was any discomfort it was from the warm weather. Other than that, people felt very safe and felt that it was very well organized.”
Another innovation for the holiday was during the evening worship when, according to Rabbi New, the congregation held services in the neighborhood along High Point Road in Sandy Springs.
“We had three services throughout the neighborhood in cul-de-sacs. One was on the north side of the synagogue. Another was on the south side of our sanctuary and the third was more central. And we had three different evening services and that worked out well also.”
Rabbi New, who is also Georgia director of the 14 Chabad synagogues in the state, left it to each congregation to decide for itself whether it wanted to sponsor outdoor holiday services. He said that at least two other communities, including one led by his son in Toco Hills, also invited congregants to worship together.
Despite the success of the services, Rabbi New felt it was too soon to predict what form high holiday worship would take this year, but the experience with Shavuot holiday may have offered a way forward.
“We just don’t what we are going to do for the high holidays but certainly the model of multiple services, with social distancing, is something that’s the only answer I can see for the moment with a limited attendance at each one. In any case we will follow the guidelines of the CDC.”
For this holiday, many members of Rabbi New’s congregation, such as Norm Grey, who is retired, preferred to play it safe and stayed home, particularly since an 84-year-old neighbor and Beth Tefillah congregant had recently succumbed to the coronavirus. Nonetheless, he’s an enthusiastic participant in daily study of the Talmud and twice daily worship that is facilitated by Zoom teleconferencing.
The synagogue’s pre-Shabbat Friday afternoon service on Zoom, he mentioned, sometimes includes up to 150 participants. Many feel more connected than ever.
“In times of stress, you might say we’ve developed a band of brothers, so to speak. And in this case, it’s brothers and sisters.”