Letter from the Chief Rabbi
305 Ballards Lane
London N12 8GB
020 8343 6301
firstname.lastname@example.org www.chiefrabbi.org 27th May 2020/4th Sivan 5780
Dear Rabbis, Rebbetzens and Presidents,
Guiding Principles for Exiting Lockdown
We are living in unprecedented times. Our Shuls have been closed for months and communal life has changed in ways we could never have imagined.
I wanted to thank you personally for your extraordinary efforts in leading our communities through these challenging times. I would welcome the opportunity to connect with you, which is why just yesterday I held a Zoom call with the Rabbinate from across the UK in the run up to Shavuot, and would like to propose a Zoom call for Presidents, which my office will be in touch to arrange shortly, to take place after Shavuot.
As the lockdown eases, our minds have now turned to the time when Shuls will reopen. We have many questions: When and in what manner will Shuls reopen? What form will Shul life take? What will happen over the Yamim Noraim? I reflected on this briefly in a recent article in the JC, which you can read here.
The one consistent theme at present is uncertainty, and I want to reassure you.
I am personally having discussions with Government Ministers and other faith leaders. My office is heavily engaged in working across Government to keep abreast of the latest developments and to provide advice with respect to matters that specifically affect the Jewish community. Current discussions focus on the reopening of our Shuls and ways in which, as a priority, we can once again hold weddings and stone-settings.
As you may know, the Government has set up five Ministerial Task Forces to plan how the country will re-open. I am a member of the Task Force on Places of Worship. As a result, decision-makers are aware of the specific issues faced by the Jewish community and our own decisions about when and how it is safe to reopen our Shuls can be made on the basis of the best and most up-to-date Government guidance. Current thinking includes the reopening of Shuls in Phase 3 of the government’s planning, which will be no earlier than 4th July.
In parallel to this, and to help inform the work of the Task Force, my office is working together with the United Synagogue to consider, in detail, the practical aspects of how our Shuls could be made ‘Covid safe’. This work not only covers the application of standard measures for any public place, such as physical distancing and the regular cleaning of surfaces, but also looks at a range of questions, including whether singing in Shul can be permitted and how services themselves may need to be modified to accommodate, for example, reading from the Sefer Torah. Many of the answers to these questions will, of course, turn on the unique nature of each shul premises but my office will be on hand to support you wherever possible.
My hope is that draft guidance on reopening Shuls will be available next week and my office will share this with you at the earliest opportunity. This work will be underpinned by the following key principles that should guide us as we exit from lockdown.
1. Pikuach Nefesh - Every step on the long road towards reopening our communities must be governed by the overwhelming priority of Pikuach Nefesh - the protection of life.
2. Reopening is a process - The Government’s approach and guidance is absolutely clear that the reopening of our Shuls will not be a single event, but rather a cautious, phased process, which will take place over the course of many months. As such, the answers to the questions we have are subject to the latest medical and scientific data and will therefore evolve and change. We must be prepared for this and the uncertainty this brings.
Communities need to have in place plans for a rapid shutdown, should there be a suspected case of Coronavirus amongst those attending shul or potentially a cluster of cases in the local area. The actual action needed will be subject to the prevailing advice at the time, taking into account the local context.
3. We must work together - The process of reopening is a learning curve for us all; for religious and lay leadership as well as for members. It requires the active participation and cooperation of everyone. It will also require a great deal of forbearance from every person wishing to partake in communal life. It can only succeed if we work carefully and cautiously together.
4. One size does not fit all – Every one of our communities is different; from demography to size of membership, from geographic location to the function of the building. Whilst we will all be led by Government guidance and the phases the government has set out for emerging from lockdown, what happens within each phase may differ from community to community. What one community does may not be right or appropriate for another community. It may be appropriate for some to move slower whilst others move faster, all whilst adhering to Government guidelines.
5. No community operates in a vacuum – It is important that the detailed guidance being developed for the reopening of our Shuls is used by all communities and that communities sense check other ideas, should they have any. In particularly where these ideas touch on issues of a Halachic or Shul services related nature, please discuss these with the Office of the Chief Rabbi. Since all communities stand to benefit from the experiences of others, all communities are encouraged to engage with this process by providing comments and feedback, once the first set of guidance is issued.
6. Patience and agility – Whilst we would dearly love to be able to plan months in advance, and we are all already thinking about the Yamim Noraim, this year such advance planning will be more difficult. The Government’s phased approach together with the ever-changing ‘R’ rate could significantly impact our planning. It is possible that our path out of lockdown could speed up but it is equally possible that it could slow down or even reverse. As a result we have no choice but to be patient and with that, agile, to ensure that we can adapt as necessary.
7. Communication – As we are about to enter a prolonged period of uncertainty during which we will introduce, and then revise policy and guidance, regular communication with members is critical. We need to ensure that whilst we are effectively communicating the rules and the need for all members to comply, we also remain warm, welcoming and understanding. It is also important that we continue to convey the message that no-one of any age who is concerned about their health
should feel obligated to attend a service, make up a minyan or say kaddish.
Conscious of the extreme circumstances and challenging times we are facing, my office’s Centre for Community Excellence continues to offer support, guidance and funding for aspects of community life. Please do utilise this wonderful resource. I receive regular updates about what is happening across our communities and the more we hear from you the better. We are also seeking creative ideas for what Shul life might look like in the time before a vaccine for Covid-19 is found. I would ask that you share any thoughts and ideas you might have with CCE, through Rachel Shababo.
Thank you once again for the strength you are showing and for the leadership you are providing. Our communities are indebted to you and I, myself, am eternally grateful.
If ever we needed reminding, we are firmly in the Almighty’s hands. May He bless all the work of your hands as you serve our precious communities.
With blessings for a Chag Sameach, and a peaceful and healthy Yom Tov,
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis