After Supreme Court ruling, New Yorkers go back to synagogue

“Many are still staying away, people who are immunocompromised or with various conditions.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn to protest against coronavirus restrictions, in October. (photo credit: YUKI IWAMURA/REUTERS)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn to protest against coronavirus restrictions, in October.
(photo credit: YUKI IWAMURA/REUTERS)
NEW YORK – Last Shabbat, Chaya Goldish woke at 8 a.m. for the first time in almost a year. She hadn’t been to synagogue since March and was eager to arrive early. It was the first sabbath since the pandemic that New York restrictions on worship services were lifted.
Goldish lives in what authorities deemed a “red zone” of Brooklyn with high COVID-test positivity rates. Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandated that houses of worship in “red zones” were limited to 10 attendees regardless of the facility’s capacity. “Orange zones” with moderate positivity rates were capped at 25. Businesses deemed essential could remain open in these zones without the capacity limits as places of worship.
In a November 25 ruling, the US Supreme Court blocked government restrictions on houses of worship in New York. The decision, which split 5-4, was the first in which Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was confirmed last month following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, gave the conservatives a majority. The conservative justices were convinced by the argument that pandemic restrictions should not be stricter for religious institutions than for secular ones.
The decision resolved two cases at once: one brought by Agudath Israel of America, an organization representing Orthodox Jews, and one brought by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn.
“This is the first time in my memory that we have assumed the role of plaintiff before the high court,” Avi Shafran, Agudath Israel director of public affairs, told The Jerusalem Post. “What impelled us here was the singling out by New York’s governor of Orthodox neighborhoods as virus spreaders, repeatedly calling pointed attention to the residents’ religion, when other neighborhoods with even higher virus transmission rates were not given the same ‘red zone’ status. Our rabbinic leadership felt that we needed to speak up and defend our, and all Americans’, religious rights.
“As observant Jews, we are fully dedicated to the ideal of preserving the good health of ourselves and others. Nothing in our suit was contradictory to that. Our argument was strictly about the harsher treatment of houses of worship. What are sufficient safety measures for a supermarket or liquor store should be sufficient measures for a shul or church or mosque,” Shafran continued. “We expect shuls to keep all the COVID regulations. We just want religious institutions to be treated fairly, no differently from secular ones. That is part of the guarantee of the Constitution’s First Amendment.”
In a call with reporters on Thursday, Cuomo said the high court’s ruling would have no impact on the state’s virus control efforts because the red zone status for the area in question had expired last week.
“It’s irrelevant from any practical impact because the zone that they were talking about has already been moot,” the governor said. “I think this was really just an opportunity for the court to express its philosophy and politics.”
He also pointed out that the decision, which now goes to the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals, is not final and did not appear to affect New York State’s rules for mass gatherings.
Immediately following the ruling, Rabbi Kenneth Auman, who leads Young Israel of Flatbush, an Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn, sent an email to his congregation.
“We were very happy to hear of the Supreme Court decision removing the very onerous restrictions that had been imposed on the houses of worship in our area by the state,” Auman wrote.
“Of course, this relaxation of restrictions in no way diminishes our commitment to maintaining a safe environment in shul. We still require masks, social distancing, and handwashing. When you arrive at shul, please make sure that your first stop is at the sink,” Auman continued. “Only sit in the rows and seats that are marked with green dots and wear your masks over your mouths and noses at all times. Try not to wander about the shul. By keeping to the rules, you will be fulfilling a double mitzvah – protecting your own health and demonstrating concern for others.”
AUMAN TOLD the Post that roughly 60 members attended services on Saturday. The building can seat 700 people.
“Many are still staying away, people who are immunocompromised or with various conditions,” he said.
Auman noted that women in particular had been reluctant to attend prior to last week, even when restrictions eased from a cap of 10 to 25 attendees. Jewish law requires a minimum of 10 men to make a minyan, or prayer quorum, and women are not traditionally obligated to pray.
“I hadn’t been going to services because I knew if I didn’t go that would leave an extra space that a man could go. It seemed more important to allow a man to go,” said Goldish, 67, a Young Israel of Flatbush congregant.
Goldish and her husband both tested positive for coronavirus in March. In April, her father died from the virus.
But Goldish called Gov. Cuomo’s restrictions “draconian.” She was “very happy” about the Supreme Court ruling. “When I heard the news, the first thing I said was, ‘It’s about time. The Supreme Court finally has a little bit of logic.’
“I never used to get to shul before 10 a.m., but I got myself dressed and ready by 8:30 this week. I was just so happy to be there. Davening [praying] at home is really different than being in shul,” she said.
“It’s so sad to not be able to go to shul and be with a community when there’s a pandemic and things are tough,” Goldish continued. “It’s not like we have to hug each other. We can be socially distant but we should be together in the same room, praying to Hashem. When things are tough, we should be encouraged to go to shul.”
 Other residents of red zones are still c hoosing to stay home.
Shulim Leifer, 35, lives in Brooklyn’s Marine Park neighborhood. He hasn’t attended synagogue since Purim in early March, other than a brief appearance to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
“So the ruling didn’t change much for me practically,” he said. Leifer, a self-described “modern hassid,” declined to share the name of his synagogue.
“I congratulate the litigants on the victory in court, but I would have liked to have seen nearly the same effort expended on actually mitigating spread within our community. We’ll never know what could have been had the community worked harder in order to keep each other safe,” Leifer continued.
Outside of the red zones, New Yorkers had mixed feelings on the court verdict and its implications.
“This ruling will have no practical impact on how we conduct our services. Safety takes absolute priority in Halacha [Jewish law], and as a consequence, our safety protocols have always exceeded governmental mandates,” said Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Kehilath Jeshurun, a Modern Orthodox congregation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Steinmetz said that despite directives on synagogues not applying to Manhattan, Kehilath Jeshurun chose to enforce its own restrictions, such as holding all services outdoors until the winter weather makes it unbearable, and capping the number of attendees once they return indoors.
In Long Island, Rabbi Chanan Krivisky, who leads Chabad of Jericho, said his congregation was “very enthusiastic” about the Supreme Court decision. Krivisky said the ruling reconciles the Jewish mandate of pikuach nefesh, preserving human life.
“We can’t universally apply pikuach nefesh. These things aren’t cookie-cutter,” he said. “Everything has to be looked at case by case, which is what was done here. Circumstances change and we have to make informed decisions. Although as Jews we dress in black and white, we certainly do not think in black and white,” he continued.
“The ruling shows an acknowledgment of the value of Jewish Life in society. The world respects Jewish people when we uphold true Torah values.”
Reuters contributed to this report.