Monday, June 22, 2020
Reconvening Minyan at ASBI
ב׳ לפרשת ״וַתֵּעָצַ֖ר הַמַּגֵּפָֽה״

Dear Anshe Sholom,

With gratitude to God, who is the Healer of all flesh, rofeh kol bassar, I write to you today in a spirit of hope and anticipation. 

Thank you to everyone who took the time to fill out the survey and share your feelings about reconvening for tefilah b’tzibbur, communal prayer. A significant majority expressed a readiness for outdoor tefilah opportunities and a significant majority anticipated feeling ready to return to indoor tefilah in about a month or sometime later in the summer.

Based on the guidance of our Task Force for Reconvening Non-Online Activities (TFRNA) and informed by the survey results from the community, we are planning to reconvene our weekday Mincha/Ma'ariv minyan this week. Tomorrow is the second day of Rosh Chodesh and the first day of the month of Tammuz, and this is the day on which we hope to begin our weekday tefilot.

Several people have expressed to me that they do not “deserve” to be among the first members of our community to reconvene for tefilah in person and are therefore reluctant to take a slot that could go to someone more pious or who might miss public prayer more. I want to assure you that everyone deserves the chance to pray with others. A community at prayer is a microcosm of the community itself.

However, it is important to emphasize that it is never appropriate to pray with a minyan (even if saying kaddish or observing a yahrzeit) if doing so puts someone or a member of their household at risk of serious illness or if doing so would cause intense anxiety. The option to pray together does not create an obligation to do so and each one of us has a unique risk profile and risk tolerance in uncertain and frightening times.

To enable broader participation, the shul will broadcast all weekday tefilot over Zoom so long as there are those interested in watching and participating from home. The link will be available on the shul’s website.

Starting on Tuesday, the 1st of Tammuz, June 23rd, we will convene for weekday Mincha/Ma'ariv tefilot in the northeast corner of the shul parking lot. We will recite Mincha shortly before “plag” at 6:40 PM and we will recite Ma'ariv shortly after “plag” at 6:54 PM (this timing prevents the minyan from interfering with the privacy of mikvah patrons who arrive later in the evening).

Over the past month, several of you have reached out with eager anticipation for tefilah b’tzibbur. This is appropriate; tefilah b’tzibbur gives us access to a special experience of kedushah, sanctity. Others have expressed concern that they will be left behind as the shul convenes minyanim for its healthiest members. This too is appropriate; praying together has been at the heart of our communal life. We will need to invest in new ways to connect every member of our community, especially those who will not soon return to public prayer. 

Last Friday, in my video d’var Torah, I discussed the ambivalence experienced by those who attended the dedication of the Second Temple. The elders who remembered the far greater First Temple wept to see its replacement. Those who had no memories of anything better rejoiced. In contrast to the description in Ezra 3:12-13, all of us remember what it was like to celebrate Shabbat and holidays in our beloved shul just months ago. We all remember cherished elderly friends who are devoted to tefilah, but who will prudently wait longer before returning to the shul. We all remember dozens of strollers parked alongside the shul on Shabbat morning and kids and adults crowding around the kiddush table to grab a cup of grape juice. And so, following the example of Ezra, we all have cause to weep. However, as the descendants of generations of Jews who have known destruction and experienced the rebuilding of Jewish life, our capacity for hope is substantial. We all have cause to rejoice at the first green shoots of tefilah b’tzibbur in our community. 

Personally, I can relate intensely to feelings of mourning and also to feelings of rejoicing. It is painful to contemplate tefilah b’tzibbur at ASBI without some of the men and women who have been pillars of our community for decades. And, these months have been the longest period of my life without tefilah b’tzibbur since I was 14 years old and I am eager for it to end. But even this ambivalence can be subsumed within a rubric of gratitude. The dilemmas that now face us are only possible because of the dedication of medical professionals who fought coronavirus on the front lines, the sacrifices of so many of us who isolated ourselves at home for weeks on end, and the kindness of God who has pushed off, for now, the “worst of the decree.”

I am visiting family on the east coast for the coming two weeks, working “extra remotely” from my mother’s home. When my family returns to Chicago, I look forward to greater opportunities to connect with each of you, to learn together, and, at long last, to pray with you.

With blessings of Torah and Mitzvot,
Rabbi David Wolkenfeld
These procedures were informed by guidance shared by the Orthodox Union and Chicago Rabbinical Council. Those organizations’ guidelines call for shuls to reconvene minyanim only after waiting at least two weeks after local jurisdictions have approved public gatherings for prayer. They recommend reconvening minyanim just a few times each week before returning to three times per day, seven days per week. And they call for communities to take steps to shorten and streamline the prayer experience to limit the duration of exposure. The Chicago Rabbinical Council, in consultation with physicians who understand and live within the Orthodox community, caps attendance for tefilah b’tzibbur at 15 worshippers and we have adopted that number for the first stage of our tefilah b’tzibbur. 

  1. Until the coronavirus is defeated or contained there will be inherent risk in any group activity. We ask those over age 65 or with any other known coronavirus comorbidity (or those who live with individuals in these categories) to speak to your physician before attending tefilah. We also recommend that everyone discuss your personal risk profile and risk tolerance with a physician and/or your family and friends so that you can make a decision that is appropriate and responsible.
  2. Prior to showing up for tefilah, each worshipper will be asked to confirm that s/he and their household are free of any Covid-19 symptoms (fever, cough, diarrhea, etc.). Masks that cover the nose and mouth must be worn by all worshippers for the duration of prayers and when arriving and departing the shul premises.
  3. For the coming period, attendance at minyan will be limited to those who sign up in advance here. There are 11 slots for men and 4 slots for women. We have added a spot for an 11th man so that any man who develops symptoms can easily make the responsible decision to stay home without jeopardizing the minyan. We ask that everyone planning on attending tefilah at shul join the Weekday Minyan WhatsApp group to stay apprised of the minyan status during the course of the day. In case of inclement weather, the minyan will be canceled. The WhatsApp group will be the means for communicating these potential cancellations.
  4. If you are saying kaddish or observing a yahrzeit and there are no additional slots, please alert Rabbi Wolkenfeld via text at 917-621-5678 and he will try to open a space for you.
  5. At this stage, we are limiting tefilah attendance to worshippers above the age of bar and bat mitzvah.
  6. The shul building will remain closed during outdoor tefilah. Please bring your own siddur and avoid the need to use the shul restroom. The parking lot will be closed to cars; please plan on walking to shul or parking elsewhere.

Possible Next Steps
We have been encouraged to reconvene communal prayer in a slow and gradual way for several reasons. Doing so gives us additional time to observe the regional reopening of the economy for warning signs of the possible resurgence of coronavirus that could put our tightly knit community at special risk. And proceeding slowly and gradually allows us to practice convening communal prayer under these strange new circumstances with new guidelines.

Thursday, July 9th, is the 17th of Tammuz, a day marked not only by fasting but by selichot, special Torah reading and haftarah. Pending the successful implementation of the first stage of reconvened minyanim, we will consider reconvening indoor tefilah on that day, three times each day, weekday and Shabbat, with attendance capped at 50 worshippers as permitted by the City of Chicago’s guidelines for public prayer.