Westlake Village rabbi on balancing physical safety with spiritual, emotional needs

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California is allowing in-person religious services to resume. What can clergy do to ensure the safety of attendees? Credit: Pixabay.

For some people, one of the biggest losses from coronavirus has been the cancelling of religious services. Many congregations have been meeting via teleconference, Zoom or Facebook. Now the state is giving the go-ahead for in-person services to resume. But attendees must wear face coverings and be screened for fevers. Attendance must be capped at 25% of capacity or 100 people, whichever is lower.

Rabbi Michael Barclay is with Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village. He says the new guidelines are a step in the right direction. 

“I think the governor is attempting to balance the difficult challenge between providing for physical needs and recognizing the essentiality of synagogues, churches; recognizing the importance of spiritual, psycho/emotional needs as well. I don't believe that he's gone far enough. But I do believe it's a step in the right direction,” he says. 

What more needs to be done?

Rabbi Barclay: “The first is obviously the 25% with maximum 100 people. While that might be okay for some services, let's say a Friday night Shabbat, it might not be okay for other services, such as festival Shavuot, let alone the festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur coming up in September. 

So in our synagogue, we've made the decision that for high holidays, we're going to cut out some liturgy in order to provide double services, so that people can be socially distant because that's the responsible thing to do. 

But you can't just sort of limit it, and we're not that large compared to some of these megachurches. You can't just sort of limit it to say, 100 people, if that's 10% or less of your community. Especially given that restaurants don't have those limitations, cannabis clubs don't have those limitations. And those are truly non-essential businesses as opposed to synagogues and churches. 

So I have faith that the governor will help work it out, and he'll understand this, and that those numbers and that percentage will be increased.”

Congregations being treated differently from other organizations — is that one of your biggest concerns? 

“My biggest concern is each individual's safety, both their physical wellbeing and their psycho/emotional/spiritual wellbeing. 

… It is a large concern … even though we are a constitutionally-protected right, in terms of practice of religion, that in many cases, certainly in California, it certainly seems as if we've not been treated that way.

History proves the fact that religiosity, while it can be dangerous when you use it in a fanatical way, when used appropriately, religious organizations can be so helpful to the community and the nation in terms of helping each individual congregant have a wellness in their psyche and their spirit and … being happier, more ethical, kinder with each other. So we need to be considered essential at all times.” 

A ceremony at Temple Ner Simcha before the coronavirus pandemic broke out. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Michael Barclay.

In Northern California’s Butte County, a church service was held against state guidelines. An attendee was infected with COVID-19 and might have exposed as many as 180 people. What about those concerns?

“We have an obligation to create a physically safe space so that people can become more aware and more enlightened through their spirituality. Part of that means that we need to take care of each other. We need to have social distancing. We need to be providing Purell, etc. We also need to be aware of what people's needs are, and strike that balance.”

Some places of worship are removing prayer books and hymnals. What else is Temple Ner Simcha doing to limit COVID-19 contagion? 

“One of the things that we have taken to doing is having the prayers broadcast up on a screen or on the wall. So people can be looking up and be participating in the prayers without having to hold something. 

That's a really good solution for our community because we're willing to use electricity. Let's remember that in the Orthodox Jewish community, on a holiday, you cannot use electricity. So none of that is even an option. 

And there's always risk. Walking into a service in the anti-Semitic climate of the last number of years is in itself a physical risk. Practicing Judaism entails certain physical risks. And if someone wants to come to do that, that is their choice. 

I think that the clergy need to be responsible. We need to have that social distance. We need to make sure that we're not being foolish. But we also need to recognize the importance — psychologically and emotionally and spiritually — that synagogue and church services give to people.”



Chery Glaser


Darrell Satzman, Amy Ta