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Rebellion and resolution over shul closures

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TALI FEINBERG

Some saw this as a rebellion, but those concerned said that that wasn’t the case.

“We stayed open not in an act of defiance, but because we are a very small shul of ten people. It wasn’t a compulsory closing, but a recommendation,” one senior Johannesburg rabbi told the SA Jewish Report.

However, the chief rabbi said, “The decision taken to recommend closure of all our shuls was the most painful one I’ve even been involved in. It was done, as the halacha stipulates, on the medical advice of experts, in this case Professor [Barry] Schoub and Dr [Richard] Friedland.

“It was clear from my letter to the rabbis that the decision was made to save lives, which is the highest halachic value, which we are all committed to. It was clear to all shuls from my letter what they needed to do from a halachic point of view.”

Said the senior rabbi, “We felt that as a small shul, we could implement stringent [social distancing and hygiene] measures under the supervision of a doctor – even more stringent than what was recommended. However we have since decided to close.”

Another senior rabbi with a small shul gave a similar reason for continuing services. “We had services from Thursday 19 March [even though the chief rabbi made the recommendation to suspend services on Wednesday 18 March]. There was no decision, it was just a recommendation. The members of the shul decided to stay open, and I didn’t see a reason to stop them. Their argument was that if they were going to work, coming to shul was no less risky. The services continued on the basis of those who wanted them to continue.”

He said about 15 or 16 men came to shul. Women didn’t attend, allowing the men to spread out into the women’s section to allow social distancing. Most members didn’t attend. Those that did ensured that they abided by strict hygiene regulations. However on Monday, 23 March, this rabbi decided to suspend services.

In a letter to congregants that he shared with the SA Jewish Report, he wrote, “The rapid increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, particularly in Gauteng, gives cause for halachic reassessment. Such risks shouldn’t be taken for non-obligatory activities, and I’m therefore instructing all members [who aren’t already staying away] to daven all three daily teffilos [prayers] at home until further notice.”

A Johannesburg doctor told the SA Jewish Report he had assisted the shul he attends to implement medical protocols to ensure that congregants were safe if the shul stayed open. He said the decision to open or close a shul was the jurisdiction of rabbis, not doctors. But, in the event a shul remained open, doctors had to ensure that the environment was safe for all congregants.

He agreed to do this only because he was a member of the shul, and was there to oversee the safety protocol three times a day. He also worked closely with another medical expert.

“Nowhere did I say the shul must stay open, but if it was to remain open, these measures were to ensure it was completely safe,” he said. Although he was approached by other shuls to assist in implementing similar measures, he refused to do so as he wouldn’t be on site to oversee them.

The issue was resolved on Monday, 23 March, when a letter by Goldstein expressed concern that services were continuing in shuls and homes. “The continuation of these shuls and minyanim is posing a direct risk to life. It is therefore a halachic imperative that all of these minyanim cease with immediate effect. We are calling on all rabbis and members of the community to abide by this instruction to close all minyanim to help ensure that we can keep our community safe,” the letter said.

An attached document by medical experts Dr Richard Friedland and Professor Barry Schoub said, “Unfortunately there are still some shuls which have remained open. These minyanim, no matter how they justify this with efforts at social distancing, are endangering the lives of people in our community and the population at large. ‘Private minyanim’ in houses are an even greater threat.”

Following these letters, the shuls that tried to go ahead with minyanim finally suspended services. Hours later, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the nation would go into full lockdown.

  • The SA Jewish Report (SAJR) knows the names of the shuls, senior rabbonim, and doctors involved, and isn’t yet naming them in the interests of unifying our community. However, after this crisis is over, this newspaper and the board of the SAJR believe that the community should hold them to account.

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