COVID planning at Calgary shuls: July 6 update

by Maxine Fischbein

(AJNews) – Last month, Alberta Jewish News provided extensive coverage regarding the operations of Calgary Synagogues during the Coronavirus pandemic.  We checked back in with each of the five spiritual leaders to find out what has changed as the province has further lifted restrictions including those pertaining to houses of worship.  Here is what they had to say, in alphabetical order by Clergy.

Rabbi Leonard Cohen:  Kehilat Shalom (Unaffiliated)

Rabbi Leonard Cohen

Kehilat Shalom recently held its first in-person minyan (prayer service) since the COVID shutdown.  Prayers were recited outdoors with worshipers required to maintain physical distance and to wear masks.

According to Rabbi Leonard Cohen, the gathering was a success, with attendees adhering to guidelines and gloved volunteers distributing siddurim (prayer books).  Outdoor services will continue for the time being and Synagogue leaders are in discussion with the Calgary JCC – where the congregation had regularly met prior to the pandemic – regarding re-opening policies.

Kehilat Shalom continues all its classes and programs, some online and others face-to-face.  A Bar Mitzvah later this summer will be tented with strict protocols for distancing.

At a recent meeting of the Kehilat Shalom Board of Directors, the decision was taken to hold in-person High Holidays services.  Rabbi Cohen said the implementation of this plan will involve “changes to the location, structure and very dynamic of the services.”

Rabbi Cohen anticipates that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services will be held at “some indoor location with adequate space and ventilation.”  Services will be abbreviated, if necessary, depending on the current circumstances.

“We will continue to insist on face masks and social distancing,” said Rabbi Cohen, adding, “I’m a big, big, big advocate of masks.  It’s critical at this stage of the game.”

Rabbi Mark Glickman:  Temple B’nai Tikvah (Reform)

Rabbi Mark Glickman

Although its office is open for business and some in-person classes are being held with safe physical distancing, Temple B’nai Tikvah does not yet plan to reopen for onsite prayer services, says Rabbi Mark Glickman.   The decision to hold off on in-person services was based upon “not just the letter, but the spirit” of the province’s health guidelines, Rabbi Glickman said.

Of particular concern are what the Rabbi refers to as “the three S’s, seniors, siddurim and singing.”  The elevated risk for seniors and others with underlying conditions that are exposed to the coronavirus is a major concern as are the risks associated with the sharing of prayer books and with singing, which has been categorized by health authorities as a high risk activity.

“I would rather open a couple of weeks too late than a couple of weeks too early,” Rabbi Glickman said.

While there are no plans to reopen the Temple doors for worship in the immediate future, the congregation continues to engage in prayer via Zoom.  Meanwhile, the lay leadership and Rabbi Glickman have been busy with the development of a COVID-19 Task Force that will be up and running during the first week of July.

While some lifecycle events have been postponed, others are currently being contemplated.  Simchas have taken place with limitations based on health guidelines and Temple practices.

Rabbi Glickman and the Temple Music Director are planning for High Holidays services which they currently contemplate will be held via Zoom.

“Health and safety concerns are paramount,” said Rabbi Mark Glickman.  “I’d be the last to open, with pride.”

Rabbi Binyomin Halpern:  House of Jacob Mikveh Israel (Modern Orthodox)

Rabbi Binyomin Halpern

House of Jacob Mikveh Israel began meeting for onsite morning and evening minyans last month, holding them outdoors for the first two weeks and indoors thereafter.

As Alberta Jewish News goes to press, the plan is for all Shabbat services to resume onsite at HOJMI beginning July 4.

Physical distancing and masks are an absolute requirement, said Rabbi Binyomin Halpern.

“We are asking people to bring their own siddurim, but if they don’t have them, we are providing dedicated siddurim.”

Bimah choreography looks quite different at HOJMI due to the need for physical distancing.

“We aren’t calling people up to the Torah.  Only the Baal Koreh [Torah reader] and their immediate family members are allowed on the Bimah,” Rabbi Halpern said.

Given the current distancing requirement, the Baal Koreh reads the Parsha (Torah portion) in its entirety, unpunctuated by the honours given to congregants under ordinary circumstances.

HOJMI Classes and programs continue to be delivered virtually on a variety of platforms including Zoom, Vimeo, and WhatsApp.

High Holidays are still under discussion at House of Jacob.

“We haven’t yet committed on the final plan, but we are planning proactively,” Rabbi Halpern said.


Cantor Russell Jayne:  Beth Tzedec Congregation (Conservative)

Cantor Russ Jayne

Beth Tzedec’s Senior Management Team has planned what Cantor Russell Jayne calls “ a cautious phased reopening.”

The first phase, which will have been implemented by the time this issue of Alberta Jewish News reaches homes, features three onsite weekday prayer services, each taking place on a non-Torah reading day.  The second phase will include in-person Shabbat morning services beginning on July 25.  Expansion to twice-daily onsite weekday services is contemplated for August.

Those wishing to attend onsite services must register in advance, at least one day prior to the services they plan to attend.   Those attending services in person are required to wear masks, to sanitize their hands and to provide their own head coverings and talitot.  On arrival, they must check in with staff who will be asking COVID-related screening questions.  Seats will be marked and bimah choreography will be altered to ensure required physical distancing.

Congregants who cannot attend services in person can continue to access all weekday services via Zoom and Friday Night Kabbalat Shabbat and Saturday morning Shabbat services via livestreaming.  This will help to ensure that those who are older or who have underlying conditions can continue to participate in services without putting themselves at risk.

Just before Alberta Jewish News went to press, Beth Tzedec sent out an announcement of a July 5th Member Appreciation BBQ, with organizers taking advantage of the Synagogue’s large outdoor parking lot for a big tailgate party with appropriate physical distancing.

“This could all change at the drop of a hat,” said Cantor Russell Jayne (begging the question:  Is that a kippah or a cowboy hat?)

“We are prepared to walk it right back should there be a spike in COVID cases and AHS requires a return to more stringent measures,” Cantor Jayne added.

For now, Beth Tzedec classes continue to be delivered online via Zoom

As previously reported, Beth Tzedec is planning for the High Holidays.  Services will be livestreamed whether or not the doors can open for onsite services.

“Right now it seems most likely that we will assemble a Minyan so that all prayers can be recited including the Kaddish,” said Cantor Jayne.  “While I hope we can all be together, the virus itself will decide whether we can safely invite large numbers of congregants to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur onsite.”

Rabbi Menachem Matusof:  Chabad Lubavitch Calgary

Rabbi Menachem Matusof

Chabad Lubavitch Calgary held minyanim in person and a special program via Zoom in memory of a beloved supporter on June 28 and 29.

“We are moving cautiously toward minyans,” said Rabbi Menachem Matusof, adding, “We are very careful.”

While admitting to feeling some pressure to reopen for prayer services, Rabbi Matusof remains reluctant.

“Our organization is not just a Shul.  We have other major programs to consider.”

“Our main emphasis is on camp.  This is a big challenge because parents don’t want Zoom and online,” Rabbi Matusof said, adding that a solution to safely delivering Camp Gan Israel programming was important in ensuring shalom bayit – peace in the home – for families who have been cooped up together for months due to the COVID pandemic.

Toward that end, on June 29, Chabad Calgary announced that they will be running the camp with limited registration.  They promise strict COVID-19 protocols and a dedicated staff for frequent cleaning and sanitizing.

Another main focus for Chabad has been their kosher catering initiative which has, according to Rabbi Matusof, provided some 2,500 kosher meals in Calgary and beyond since Pesach.

“Life is precious,” says Rabbi Matusof, who is concerned about adding more people to the mix by opening up for services.

Nevertheless, Chabad is considering the reimplementation of Shabbat services, at least in part, with an emphasis on Torah reading and careful attention to health requirements.

“G-d forbid if something happens…we don’t even want to go there.”

Chabad has not yet made any decisions regarding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Calgary Chevra Kadisha 

The Calgary Chevra Kadisha continues to enforce strict protocols where burials and unveilings are concerned and has enhanced safety measures to protect staff and volunteers who tend to the deceased.  While provincial guidelines allow larger gatherings, the Chevra Kadisha continues to take a cautious approach, allowing no more than 20 mourners, friends and families to gather for graveside funerals and unveilings.

“We continue to monitor and discuss numbers and provincial guidelines, but the Chevra Kadisha will only implement the policies that we feel best protect our volunteers and community,” Calgary Chevra Kadisha Executive Director Rick Pollick said.

Local Rabbis continue to participate in COVID-19 town hall meetings for faith leaders hosted by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw as well as meetings for the leaders of major local Jewish organizations convened by Calgary Jewish Federation.  The sharing of information and best practices continues to keep our Synagogues and community as safe as possible in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maxine Fischbein is a Calgary-based Local Journalism Initiative reporter. 

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