As countries and U.S. states slowly begin to lift restrictions and prepare for a new normal in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, synagogues are showing caution and restraint, focusing on ensuring that they do whatever is necessary to protect human life.

“Even though according to the letter of the law in Idaho, it became permissible to hold in-person services as of May, on the advice of medical professionals in our community and rabbinic input, we have decided not to open up,” Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz, who co-directs Chabad Lubavitch of Idaho with his wife Esther, told

Instead, they’re filling the gap with online programming and classes, a drive-by Lag BaOmer celebration and a “Taste of Shabbat,” which offers community members Shabbat items packed in a bag via curbside pickup from the Chabad House. “While technically permissible, a lot of houses of worship are not holding services,” he noted. “There are a lot of social-distancing requirements, and even with those, we’re not comfortable holding them at this time.”

Across the world, synagogue services have all but entirely ceased as social distancing continues, with the exception of prayer services still being held in certain specific situations. Twelve student rabbis in Australia have been self-quarantining together in their yeshivah building since the beginning of the outbreak and make up one of very few minyanim being held in the world. In South Africa, an adult-care facilityon lockdown has had a quorum of residents. The same is true in a few other Jewish group residences around the world. But these isolated congregational services are the exception, rather than the rule, as the vast majority of synagogues plan to remain closed until the danger has passed.

‘A Danger Is More Stringent Than a Prohibition’

As Hungary began to ease restrictions, Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, regional director of Chabad Lubavitch of Hungary and head of Budapest’s rabbinic court, issued a detailed responsum urging the country’s synagogues to remain shuttered for the time being.

“Since we are dealing with matters of life and death, I must opine that under no circumstances should you open the synagogues at this time,” he wrote. “As the Rema wrote, ‘One must be careful to avoid anything that can put one in danger, for a danger is more stringent than a prohibition, and we must be more concerned with a doubtful danger than a doubtful prohibition.”

“Legally, it may not be prohibited to reopen synagogues, but as the community’s rabbi and the regional director of Chabad Lubavitch in this country, I am instructing you not to open the synagogues or hold any other gatherings,” he continued. “The scientific consensus is that the danger hovers above us even now.”

As with this synagogue in Budapest, Chabad rabbis are operating with a mindset of caution and a view towards the preservation of life, even as businesses around them continue to reopen. (Photo: Tamás-Haim www.tfilin.hus)
As with this synagogue in Budapest, Chabad rabbis are operating with a mindset of caution and a view towards the preservation of life, even as businesses around them continue to reopen. (Photo: Tamás-Haim www.tfilin.hus)

Oberlander went on to call for a wait-and-see period, and when it’s confirmed that the risk is gone or absolutely minimal, “we will joyously reopen the synagogues and thank G‑d for enabling us to return to praying congregationally.”

The letter included four close-typed pages of source material from Jewish law on the importance of preserving life and the extent to which Jewish law obligates one to go in order to do so.

A Mindset of Caution

Chabad rabbis are operating with a mindset of caution and a view towards the preservation of life, even as businesses around them continue to reopen.

“We do not plan to open for now, despite the state allowing it,” said Rabbi Levi Greenberg, associate rabbi at Chabad of El Paso in Texas. Chabad in Missouri made the same decision. In Georgia, an Atlanta Chabad center that was initially planning to reopen following the governor’s permission has informed the community that it would instead be remaining closed in keeping with Chabad of Georgia’s statewide decision to keep in-person services suspended.

And in Israel, where stringent measures have largely curbed community transmission of the virus and with only very limited prayer services allowed by the government under specific circumstances, Chabad has no present plans to reopen synagogues.

Looking Ahead to Limited Services

In Utah, where Gov. Gary Herbert just issued an executive order providing guidance on how religious institutions can reopen, Rabbi Avremi Zippel, program director at Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, says currently the community connects via Zoom to ensure everyone has their tefillin and is in the mindframe of prayer and they are also hosting online courses, but the synagogue remains closed.

“We have not opened, but we are reorganizing our entire shul so that we will have chairs placed more than six feet apart, we’re discontinuing the kiddush until further notice, and attendance will be by reservation only, as we will have a 20-person limit when we do open,” said Zippel.

Protecting Every Life

In Florida, where places of worship were largely exempt from stay-at-home orders, and where many counties have begun partial reopening, Chabad of Florida issued an open letter to the state’s Jewish community, explaining why they chose to voluntarily close their synagogues at the outset of the outbreak, and why they would not yet be reopening them even as the state begins to loosen restrictions.

The letter, which is signed by 15 prominent doctors and more than 65 rabbis representing the scores of Jewish communities across the state, recognizes that everyone is anxious to return to their synagogues, but cautions that “it is important to remember that the Torah standard of protecting even one life, and the extent to which Jewish law prioritizes even doubtful danger to life overrides almost all other halachic requirements. Therefore, the benchmarks and timeframe for reopening our synagogues and minyanim according to Torah values do not necessarily correspond to the government standards for reopening other parts of society.”

The letter describes a planned reopening in stages, with timing dependent on a variety of factors, including hospital capacity, local guidelines, availability of testing and the ability of each individual synagogue to implement the necessary procedures and protocols.

“At this point, we’re still in Stage 0, meaning synagogues are not yet ready to reopen, and we are still not at the point of safely restarting any minyan, classes or other in-person programs,” it continued.”

“Remember,” the letter concluded, “that even while our shuls are closed and we are praying alone, G‑d is still very present in our homes.”