Their doors may be shut for now, but Newton synagogues say pandemic ‘didn’t close our congregation'

Synagogues in Massachusetts have been allowed to hold modified in-person services since May 18, but many in Newton and around the state have continued to keep their doors closed.

Rabbi Keith Stern of Newton’s Temple Beth Avodah said while “there is a part of me who would like nothing more than to throw the doors open and everyone come run in,” he has not reopened the doors to his Temple because “the protection of life transcends every other Jewish obligation.”

Stern said the pandemic is “a devastating shock to our system.”

“Spiritually painful, and overwhelming, tremendously sad — it’s evoked a real sense of grief and loss,” he said.


But in some cases, Stern and other synagogue leaders said, the switch to remote services presented opportunities for even more connection.

Stern said, for instance, he loves seeing his community members in their element — “their feet are up, they’re in their sweats, their kids are running around, they’re cuddling with their dogs” — and there is something “delightful” about the informality of virtual gatherings.

“I think that’s going to have an extraordinarily lasting effect on how we do things in the future,” he said.

Governor Charlie Baker ordered the temporary closure of non-essential businesses in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He allowed places of worship to remain open with restrictions, but many closed because of the threat of rapid contamination COVID-19 poses for large gatherings.

Many Newton-area synagogues remained closed, but they moved classes and services online to maintain community, even for Friday services.

Although Massachusetts has lately been in Phase 2 of reopening, “the overwhelming majority of synagogue buildings remain closed,” and many services, classes, and events are on hold, said Rabbi Neal Gold, president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis.

“This is because of the Jewish principle of protecting or preserving life, which precludes almost every other religious precept,” he said.


Rabbi Benjamin Samuels, from Newton-based Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, said the synagogue “shuttered its building, but we didn’t close our congregation.”

Some synagogue leaders said they have noticed more people attending services on Zoom than they used to see walking into the temples. Stern said it’s especially helpful for those who are unable to attend in person during the week because of their work schedules and family commitments, often issues that existed before the pandemic.

“There have been some people who have had a challenge due to mobility coming to synagogue on the Sabbath who now have a way to connect to the synagogue through virtual programs and services,” Samuels said.

Stern said his temple likely will keep some of the virtual aspects even as they start to open their doors, and they are considering holding some education classes online.

Nonetheless, he said, he is concerned some of the older members of his community aren’t able to participate online.

Like many others, Samuels’ Modern Orthodox community faces the challenge of not being able to hold virtual services on holy days such as the Sabbath. To maintain a sense of unity and preserve their liturgical experience, his congregation gathers online on Friday evenings to do Kabbalat Shabbat as “an expression of honoring the Shabbat rather than accepting the Shabbat,” he said.

Churches, temples, mosques and other places of worship are high risk for the spread of COVID-19, according to the Center for Disease Control. The virus is easily transmitted through respiratory droplets, and speaking and singing allows for these droplets to be diffused, especially indoors with people close together.


Synagogue leaders in Newton said during interviews they have been keeping up with other houses of worship reopening around the country to try and make the best decisions. In March, 35 people who attended a church event in Arkansas tested positive for COVID-19. Stern said the event influenced his decision to keep Temple Beth Avodah’s doors closed.

Stern said his temple has developed a committee to study best practices for safety once they open. In the meantime, Stern said, they are focusing on the positive parts of going virtual.

“We have something that began as an emergency measure and ended up really creating a new life of its own,” he said. “I actually wonder how we are going to take what has been so embraced and make it a new part of the portfolio of opportunity that synagogues offer in congregations.”

Stern said he hopes to resume “some form of our early learning center” at the beginning of September.

“But we surely aren’t going to rush anything,” he said.

Mariana Pivatelli can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.