On Friday night I went to synagogue. My name was on the list. That means that the synagogue had plotted out the number of people able to attend within the guidelines of social distancing. Everyone would be wearing a mask, I was told. In our synagogue, I was told, everyone must wear a mask.
Ten minutes in, I left. I had to leave.
Someone walked in without a mask. I wasn’t the only one to notice, but I was certainly the only person to look around for an extra mask to give to him. There was none to be found. He should have been told that only mask-wearers were permitted in that synagogue. He should have been asked to leave. But he wasn’t and he didn’t. Instead, I did.
His name wasn’t even on the list – just like eight or nine other people who simply waltzed in, stretching the limits of social-distancing parameters. No one blinked, no one said boo. No one else left. Just me. I packed up my books and COVID kit with my sanitizing wipes, surgical gloves and alcogel – and I left.
This was not the first time this has happened. I have felt compelled to leave a synagogue for lack of compliance on several occasions. When I retell these stories, people ask why the unmasked person was never asked to leave.
In normal times, my response would have been “chutzpah!” What chutzpah of someone to enter a synagogue and not follow the rules. But these are not normal times. COVID-19 is not the norm. And in the age of pandemic, mere “chutzpah” does not do justice to the danger one causes to others when rules are violated.
A friend told me that he sees mask-wearing as a measure of a person’s “ben adam l’chaveiro quotient.” Ben adam l’chaveiro refers to the laws of Judaism that regulate ethical behavior between people. It measures how much respect one person shows towards other, or if they respect other people at all.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the High Holy Days, are a time for community, for family and for prayer. For many Jews it is the only time they ever enter a synagogue, or shtiebel, or temple. And even for many people who attend synagogue regularly, this Rosh Hashanah might be their first foray back to organized prayer since the pandemic began.
And I am worried – for them, for all of us.
My brother-in-law, the president of his synagogue, purchased two tents to provide for outside services in addition to the two services that will be held inside the building. He explained that the organization, the layout and flow and the compliance must be smooth and 100% perfect. He said that he and the synagogue have only one chance to prove that their synagogue is safe, and that they know how to keep their members safe.
CONGREGANTS OLD and young who have been in synagogue-self-exile since Purim in March must feel comfortable coming back to synagogue. My brother-in-law needs to prove that their synagogue really cares, not only about spiritual needs, but also and just as importantly, about physical and health needs.
Under the guidance of religious leaders, many synagogues will be altering the traditional Rosh Hashanah service this year; tightening it, so to speak, so as to shorten the time spent in contact with others while keeping the most essential prayers. In order to reduce the chance of potential contagion, many poems and songs will be cut.
Liturgical poems recited during prayer are called piyutim. One piyut addresses the issue of pandemic directly. Ironically, it is one of the poems that will be cut from most services.
This particular Medieval poem was composed by R’ Amnon of Mayence and transcribed by R’ Kalonymus ben Meshullam. It was famously adapted and put to music beautifully and hauntingly by Leonard Cohen in a song titled “Who by Fire.” The point is that during this High Holy Day season your fate is sealed – HOWEVER – you can change that decree through repentance, prayer and the giving of charity, tzedaka.
As we do every year, we will hear the sounds of the shofar this Rosh Hashanah. Maimonides, the great rabbi, philosopher and physician, refers to the shofar as a vehicle used to wake up those who hear it. For him it was a pre-modern alarm clock. You hear an alarm clock and you wake from your slumber. You hear the sounds of the shofar and you mend your ways.
This Rosh Hashanah we need to respect others – even if we disagree with them about wearing masks. We need to wear a mask even if the mask is uncomfortable. We need to be able to tell people that our institutions and our stores and public spaces are open only to people who respect others, and we show that respect by wearing a mask.
Every single person knows someone or knows about someone who has died from COVID-19. Everyone, even those who willfully disrespect others, knows of someone who died because of this plague. If for no other reason, masks should be worn as a memorial to those who lost their lives in this pandemic. Especially on Rosh Hashanah.
In the COVID era, the words “Do or Die” have taken on a new and very literal meaning.
May it be a healthy New Year for us all.
The author is a political commentator. He hosts the show Thinking Out Loud on JBS TV. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern.