Prayer with masks and no singing returns to synagogues in Italy, Germany

After one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in Europe, Italian synagogues reopened this week under strict restrictions, while German Jews have been praying under similar limitations in some cities.

Worshipers in Frankfurt synagogue  (photo credit: REFAEL EHRLICH)
Worshipers in Frankfurt synagogue
(photo credit: REFAEL EHRLICH)
As life in Europe ground to a shuddering halt when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, so too did religious life, including communal prayer, study and celebrations for Jewish communities across the continent.
But, with several countries opening back up after a steep reduction in the number of daily COVID-19 cases, communities in Italy and Germany are now able to return to their synagogues and some semblance of communal life is restarting.
Synagogues in Italy, one of the hardest-hit countries in the world, opened again on Monday, albeit with strict government restrictions for how to operate, while synagogues in some German cities have been open since the beginning of May with similar restrictions.
In Rome, morning prayers on Monday in the city’s great synagogue were attended by some 80 worshipers, its maximum capacity under the current regulations, while several other synagogues in the city also opened their doors.
Others were forced to remain outside due to the restrictions on the number of people allowed in the synagogue, which in normal times can house hundreds of worshipers.
Worshipers must wear masks, and singing any of the prayers is banned for the general congregation since it increases the range of spittle emitted during prayers, although the individual leading the prayers can sing since he is isolated on the prayer platform.
This means that a central feature of the Shabbat prayer services, the choir, will also be banned for now.
“It was very moving to start back prayers, and we even had a Bar Mitzvah Monday morning, although those who couldn’t be accommodated were obviously disappointed,” said Rabbi Shmuel Di Segni, Chief Rabbi of Rome.
He said the prohibition on singing reduced the atmosphere in the synagogue, but conceded it was “better than nothing.”
The upcoming Shavuot holiday will be impacted by more than just restrictions on the number of worshipers, but also by the fact that communal meals over the holidays, a common feature of Jewish life in the country, will not be allowed.
Di Segni said that the synagogue is considering forming extra, outdoor prayer services in order to cater to the large number of people expected to attend the Shavuot prayers.
The rabbi said that while the mood in the community has been lifted somewhat by the reopening of the synagogues, congregants are still nevertheless concerned about their economic situation.
Store owners and those involved in the tourism industry have been hard hit by the pandemic, and there does not appear to be a quick return to business as usual for.
In Frankfurt, Germany, the Jewish community has been able to pray since the beginning of May, but only in the great synagogue, and not the city’s three other synagogues.
The grand synagogue can usually hold up to 1,000 worshipers, but due to the necessity of staying 1.5m. apart, can only hold 150 at present.
Members of the other synagogues in the city are currently praying in the great synagogue since their premises are not large enough to conform with the distancing required.
Like in Rome, worshippers have to wear masks, singing is forbidden and the Torah is taken out of the ark at the beginning of the service in order to avoid anyone kissing it, another potential avenue for the spread of the virus.
In addition, only the individual reading from the Torah is allowed on the prayer platform, unlike usual when two men flank both sides of the Torah, along with the individual called up for the Torah blessings and the one reading.
Those called up for the Torah blessings are not even allowed on the prayer platform and must say the blessing 1.5m. from the reader.
Chief Rabbi of Frankfurt Rabbi Avichai Apel says that all the regulations in place in the synagogue were adopted in accordance with state health directives.
And like Di Segni in Rome, Apel says that the ban on singing has significantly reduced the atmosphere in synagogue.
“It’s suffocating to an extent, but this what we have to do,” Apel said resignedly.
Weddings and other celebrations have either been held with greatly reduced numbers of participants, or cancelled entirely to wait for further easing of the restrictions.
Some Bar Mitzvah boys have cancelled their celebrations and their reading from the Torah and pushed it off for an entire year, so as to read it next year in the hope that all their guests will be able to attend.
The rabbi noted, however, that there were just three deaths in the community due to COVID-19, and that the lockdown measures in Germany had not been so severe, with people able to go for walks in the city and in its parks.
Congregants have therefore been in relatively good spirits, he said.
“Still, people have missed attending synagogue, community life is very difficult without it, and we’re glad that we are now able to start praying together again despite the restrictions,” the rabbi said.