‘Rogue’ Minyans And Divided Ranks: Orthodox Rabbis Are Increasingly Split Over Safety Of Communal Prayer

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A Hasidic man prays on his balcony in Brooklyn, April 25, 2020. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (JTA) – When the coronavirus pandemic first descended on the United States in March, the Orthodox rabbis of Dallas shuttered their synagogues together in a remarkable show of unity.

In April, as the governor of Texas began reopening the state, the rabbis banded together again, telling their congregants that they all would keep their synagogues closed.

But now, as the nation’s lockdown enters its third month, their compact has frayed. This week, the rabbis announced that going forward, each synagogue would decide on its own when to resume in-person services.

“The Orthodox Rabbinate of Dallas have collectively decided that each shul will open at a time and in a way that is best suited for its physical plant and congregation,” the rabbis wrote in a statement published Thursday. “Please note that whenever your shul opens and in which form, one thing will be common to all shuls — the reopening will be gradual, methodical and, in the initial stages it will, sadly, need to be quite different from when we all prayed together.”

The letter offered the latest evidence for an emerging reality: Two months after abruptly ceasing all communal prayer, Orthodox communities across the United States are increasingly divided over when and how to resume this centerpiece of Jewish life.

In Dallas, community leaders are essentially agreeing to disagree about whether it is safe to come back to synagogue. But in other places — including New York’s suburban Long Island, Florida and Ohio — rabbis are openly sparring over whether to permit outdoor minyans, or small-scale prayer services held on porches and lawns.

That Orthodox communities are eager to get back to prayer services is not surprising. Non-Orthodox synagogues have added online Shabbat services and begun allowing prayer quorums to form over Zoom, enabling those who’ve lost a loved one to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. But Orthodox practice does not allow technology on Shabbat or virtual minyans, precluding observant Jews from fulfilling the religious obligations that form the rhythms of daily Orthodox life.

Rabbis ruled that staying home to prevent the spread of disease was a higher obligation than praying communally during the pandemic’s early days, when it ravaged Orthodox communities in New York and New Jersey. But as time has worn on and other local communities have not experienced the same crisis, rabbis have faced pressure from their constituents to allow minyans to resume with added safeguards.

Hasidic Jews in London’s Stamford Hill neighborhood gather for Shabbat services, April 25, 2020. (Barry Lewis/InPictures via Getty Images)

Last week, major Orthodox groups issued two sets of guidance that urged a slow, careful return to in-person prayer services. One set of guidelines, from the more liberal Orthodox Union, took a firmer stand than the other, from the haredi organization Agudath Israel, against resuming outdoor services immediately. But both groups left final decisions about reopening to local rabbis and health officials.

The result has been tension within Orthodox communities, with advocates of devising a pathway back to communal prayer clashing with those who say it’s too soon, and too risky, to reconvene.

In Cleveland, an Orthodox rabbinical association announced Tuesday that “block captains” could begin organizing outdoor minyans that conformed to distancing guidelines.

It faced swift opposition from other Orthodox rabbis in the area.

“I feel duty-bound to inform people that I am not supportive of the letter,” one of the rabbis wrote, according to the Cleveland Jewish News.

Leaders of a synagogue in Deerfield Beach, Florida, sent a letter to congregants this week sharply criticizing those who gathered for services in what they deemed “rogue minyanim.”

“This level of raw chutzpah and dangerous Sofek Pikuach Nefashos cannot be tolerated,” said the synagogue leaders, using a Hebrew phrase meaning possible danger to human life.

The letter warned that participants in these minyans would be denied honors at the synagogue whenever it reopened.

And the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, home to a number of large Modern Orthodox communities, released a letter Wednesday saying outdoor minyans “absolutely cannot take place now.” The northern New Jersey group was the first to issue unified rules during the pandemic, shutting down all synagogues under its purview on March 12 as it became clear that an outbreak in the New York City area was spreading within the community.

Perhaps nowhere has the fracture been more pronounced than in areas of Long Island where haredi and Modern Orthodox Jews live side by side on the same tree-lined blocks.

A local synagogue that continued to meet for services stood out so much that a prominent rabbi denounced its leader by name in a fiery lecture on Zoom just before Passover.

Rabbi Hershel Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere called the rabbi who allowed the prayer service a “danger to the entire community” and promised to personally try to “run this man out of the community.”

Religious Jewish men wearing the talit, a traditional Jewish prayer shawl, and on their foreheads the tefillin (or phylacteries), a small black leather box containing scrolls of parchment with verses from the Torah, pray keeping distance from each other outside their closed synagogue in Netanya on April 23, 2020 as Israel imposed measures to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Later that month, a group of 57 rabbis from the Five Towns and Far Rockaway signed a letter urging against gathering for outdoor services.

That was three weeks ago. In the past week, several rabbis have begun cautiously approving the practice under narrow circumstances.

The split in this community has fallen along loose ideological lines, with rabbis aligned more closely with the haredi community, often described as ultra-Orthodox, allowing the outdoor minyans while those in the Modern Orthodox camp continue to oppose them.

But there have been some exceptions where the distinctions blur between parts of the Orthodox community.

Rabbis Eytan Feiner and Motti Neuberger of The White Shul, a synagogue in Far Rockaway affiliated with the more modern Orthodox Union, sent a letter to congregants last week allowing outdoor minyans to proceed with restrictions in place.

The letter advised congregants that the minyans could only be held if each family remained on its own property and maintained at least 6 feet of distance from anyone outside his own household.

“Only OUTDOOR Minyanim are permitted,” they wrote.

Rabbi Zalman Wolowik, director of the Chabad of the Five Towns in Cedarhurst, sent a similar letter to his congregation after previously prohibiting outdoor minyans. But Wolowik told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he had not participated in such a minyan himself because his house is not situated in a way that would allow it.

“If they can do it right, everybody on their own property … kudos to them if they can do it safely,” said Wolowik, noting that many people are not able to participate in the minyans if they don’t live close to enough people who can participate. “I am their best example – I can’t do it and so I don’t do it.”

But the guidance issued last week by the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America cautioned that even carefully regulated outdoor services could spin out of control.

“Care must be taken to ensure that this not become a free-for-all,” the guidance said.

One Long Island rabbi who had recently allowed the outdoor minyans wrote to his congregants Thursday warning that his permission would be revoked if the rules for running the minyan were broken.

“I am sad to say that a number of people have called to tell me that the guidelines have already been broken in several ways,” Rabbi Yaakov Feitman of Kehillas Bais Yehudah Tzvi wrote.

It was that possibility that the rules would be broken that led Modern Orthodox rabbis in the community to oppose the practice.

“In theory, one can create a minyan today that doesn’t pose risk,” Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, a rabbi at two synagogues in the area, including Billet’s, and the chief of Infectious Diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital, said. “But the question is can that theory be translated into reality.”

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53 COMMENTS

  1. Clearly the more leftist OU etc groups will follow Dr Fauxchi and his ideas. The fact that he was on an OU interview the other day and suggested shuls being closed through yomim noraim with maybe only once a week minyan – after all he said, you don’t have to do it more often, without major pushback by the organization, tells you where they stand.

    Everyone else who has a brain and sees that beaches are allowed open even with 50% capacity, tells you that there’s no reason a shul can’t do the same thing, especially if they set up in a way that they are outside, perhaps with tents etc. If it has to be like a beach, then put down sand!

    It’s clear that there’s excessive government control here in play by certain people, especially those on the left. Unfortunately it has turned political but you see where the left stands on things, it’s called control & fear tactics.

    • Enough, I tell you this stuff is enough already. We need to get back to shul. It is shtusim what Fauxchi says. It does not matter if we get this again and the hospitals get overwhelmed, those people who are going to die, anyways it was decided rosh hashana. I don’t care about them and it is their problem. They should have davened better.

      • Let me rephrase it in an “edcuated” manner vs “uneducated”

        Enough, The curve is down. Its so down by the fum community that we are BH at near zero new cases and hatzala Covid calls in over two weeks. And 75% got it already. We will enact mitigation strategies so the likelihood of return is low and controlled if g-d forbid it occurs.

        What Facui says is an over abundant concern and I doubt he relazies how we are ahead of the curve actually BH.

        Sure it matters if we get it again and we will have strategies to nick it in the bud unlike the first time around.

        We do need to get back to shul already which is the yesod and fiundation or yddishkiet. (Although school reopneings should come before shul even. Our chder kids must learn torah if we want doros to have a kyuim. They have riske dlives many times for this and this is almsot no risk)

        Ultimately, we can’t live on a cave. If the plauge is gone, at that point you can’t lock yourself up bec maybe it will come back or thats endless. You have to pick up the pieces and move on. And yes once the pluage is gone, then we live our lives and realize it was dcedied on rosh hashana at that point. Its no longer in our hands.

        Got it Phineas?

          • Speak to Hatzolah members . Speak to drs administrating tests .
            This one is less perfect but an indicator, before Pesach everyone I knew had fever now I haven’t seen any .
            Of course you can’t know it’s zero but you know it’s close to zero . That’s how I know

          • If you also made up “facts” regularly you would not have questions. Only Fauxchi and liberals care about actual facts.

  2. The friction is coming from the left. The right chareidi Rabbis are doing their thing and keeping to themselves and their kehilos.

    Rabbi Billet will not stop harassing and threatening the right. It’s his way, or it’s no way at all! He himself writes there is nothing wrong with davening outside, but he wants to make a lo plug gezaira, and anybody who doesn’t follow his psak, is not worthy of being a Rabbi! He has called the police ON YOM TOV to be moser his colleagues. The police came and found no law was being violated.

    In Europe they had their own way of dealing with mosrim who hide behind the mask of “Rabbi”.

    • Rabbi Billet made a huge mistake because when YI would need help from the black hatters for their projects say for example for Pollard they caused a slipt that cant be bridged

    • Yes, this is what I have been saying. The right charedi rabbis from the beginning should have never shut down. They tried not listening but those liberals forced them too. That people in their shul were dying should never have been anyone’s concern. Those people should have all quarantined themselves and the rest of us could have been enjoying kiddush. Time to get rid of Fauchi and all people who warned about this in February and instead put in more people who don’t care about people dying. The economy needs to reopen and while it will collapse if the medical system gets overwhelmed, we can’t risk following science here and trying to ensure we avoid such a catastrophe, when we can ignore it and have kiddush in shul again. Enough already. Those who can’t fight this disease just need to drop dead already so the rest of us can get back to kiddush.

      • Idiotic comment.

        Some right charedi held porch safe social distant minyan once shuls closed down . And guess what noone got sick or died. They all agreed close shuls. But safe social distant minyan with no kiddush and a mask? They did do And guess what it worked. And BH no new calls. Noone says reopen to the wa yit was before. But thats what classic fake news does. You liars take it to extrems

        Got it

        • To those that are not aware:
          It is due to Rabbi Billet that we have
          1) A mikva on Peninsula Blvd
          2) an eruv which is used by the community
          3) a vaad hakashrus
          4) a shul which has at least 9 different minyanim on Shabbo(all without liquor
          for kiddush)
          5)9 minyanim for shacharis daily
          6) multiple minyanim for mincha
          7) multiple minyanim for maariv until late at night
          8) classes all day long for the community
          Many moved into the community because of the existence of the above
          I have lived here BB(before Billet) and am grateful for all he has done over the past 40 years

    • Stuff happens. Collateral damage is a part of everyday in life. People walking on sidewalks are sometimes hit by cars as they jump the curb during an accident. My wife was such a victim many years ago. B”H she fully recovered. So maybe she should never walk on a sidewalk ever again? You never know when a car will jumb the curb. Those at risk should STAY HOME! You can’t imprison millions of Americans with no end in sight. The people were for the most part, very careful until now. Healthy people have an inborn desire for freedom. For those haters who want to keep the masses locked, they have something else coming. The stay-home mandate has run its course. Time to move on in life. B”H, many people went up to the country this weekend including my daughter.

    • Is it worth it if one person drives to shul and gets into a car accident?

      Not one person will die unless he acts reckless. People act reckless and get into car accidents when driving to minyan. if you keep the rules noone dies.

      Now its not a job of a rav to worry about individuals who don’t abide by guidelines unless there is enough there to say the public as a whole will be threatened by the indviduals reckless behavior. In other words covid will spread across the kehila. However, thats not the case since enough abide by it and don’t get ill.

      The proof is in the pudding. We have had many porch minyanim in my community for over a month yet zero reported cases. I even proudly attended one pesach. noone got ill.

      • Agreed , any person who drives recklessly should not be allowed in shuls like the Fat or old people. The same with the reckless people who it Hot dogs, candy etc. Welcome to Trumps USA.

        • Such stupidty again.

          No the point is you can’t ban a minyan bec someone will act wrecklessley. Thats not our job nor is right to lock up the masses.

          re the unhelathy and the old. Also such a stupid argument. You are anyhow arguing that the old should be locked up bec you say we should all continue the lock down which includes the old. By reopening for now and allowing the young to go back you at least enable some people to return vs none. Why is your idea of all lock down better for old people?

          Furthermore, by enabling the young to work, the old gain to. They can be serviced, have their needs taken care of etc.. If we are all locked down the old gets more neglected

      • And even if people die it is worth it. They die so we can have a minyan! What more could they be proud of. I even gave $3 when they collected for the orphans. They can invest it like Trump and they will be fine.

  3. I will continue to daven as the Rashbi did, in a cave and without a minyan. Don’t need the talking, the gawking, the hawking, the schnorrers, the gaivehdik, or any of it. When it comes to kaddish, the Ribono Shel Olam and my parents will forgive me if I miss for this year, at the minimum. As the possuk says, the dead cannot praise you and we should live by them (the entirety of Torah) not the pick and choose.

    • You are so neagtive,

      You miss the koach of an amen. the koach ahtzibur. The dibuk chaverim . Everything we stand for. And yes even the shnoring is beautiful. Its our essence.

      Such a bittermodern othodox outlook in judiasm. This not real judaism

      • Yes, I will call you names and say you are the negative one. That is not hypocritical because I think we should have kiddush again in shul. I also have no idea how viruses work, as is apparent from my prior comments on this site, but I will continue with dumb statements and disgusting attacks on others. Only thinking about Trump makes me happy. My wife does not talk to me, but I keep a picture of Trump on my pillow so I am happy.

        • I do not think we should have Kiddush in shul.

          I have no idea how a virus works. But I do know the guidelines the CDC placed forth and assume they know how a virus works. We wear a mask, stay 15 feet apart vs the suggested 6 feet apart and don’t touch surfaces?

          Got it? now please stop with your lying hyper nonsense.

          Outdoor minyna is orn clad safe. In door Shuls are no less dangerous than grocery stores if you abide by rules

    • Rashbi was actually exempt from davening, and obligated only in the recital of Shema (see Tosafos, Shabbos 11a), because he studied Torah full-time. Are you doing the same? If so, what are you doing commenting here – you’re wasting time from learning! And if you’re not following in Rashbi’s way, why then you most certainly are obligated to daven with a minyan whenever possible.

  4. In Deerfield, a youngster is only 70. only certifiable morons would allow any sort of minyan. the rabbi correctly put them chutz la’machaneh.

    there are two types of rabbis. some believe the rules will be treated as halakhot. some know how jews behave. the latter should be followed; the former should find a different profession where their viewpoints are perhaps less harmful.

    • Jews behave fun.

      We need not be concerned about that Paranoid issue. Its been proven to work. Look at the past month. A few isolated incidents but 99% behave and thats enough to contain the virus which is the goal

      Your concern is malarkey

    • They davened chutz lamachanah so no big deal there, its correct about the average age there and most of the board members in Old Israel suffer from dementia.

  5. Sadly, Most of the people wanting to continue minyanim are doing it for social reasons, (or misguided ideological reasons). There are porch/street minyonim with people talking, joking, coming late etc. They have totally missed the point. Many are not adhering to the social distancing guidelines too.
    How much kavona can you have when standing outside? (Its difficult enough at the best of times). And even davening outside is a halachic problem to start with, even if in the same space; but on a separate property, different levels, fences etc are all more problematic too.
    IY”H we should all be legally back in shul soon, but with renewed understanding and appreciation of davening and a minyan.

    • Most of the people wanting to continue minyanim are doing it for social reasons

      That alone is not so bad. Klal yisroel is bteva a socially undistinanced nation and its beautiful

      How much kavona can you have when standing outside?
      I often have more kavna outside then inside. Its peaceful, less stuffy, not as crammed. Its beautiful.

      And even davening outside is a halachic problem
      Thats right . we can abide by hlacha and meet at ground level each one 20 feet apart. No need for porches you are correct. At its scraiest moment it was an extra precaution bec it was spreading so rapidly among us. No need for that any more. Just social distance rules is enough.

      appreciation of davening and a minyan
      Thats right mnay of us that worked to put together these minyanim have a great appreactaion and will embrace it. BH shuls are opening this shabbos. IYH chederim bkrov

      • “I often have more kvonah standing outside” I believe you. Less distruction etc. No collectors or Fat and old people. Now try it alone at home. You will have even more kevoneh. I guarantee you Hashem will Mekabel your Tfilos from HOME ALONE much faster than from Places where Overweight or Over Age or Disabled or High Blood Pressure or any other (Nazi type) discrimination and seperating Yiden by age or health allowed.

        • I tried it at home and didn’t have kavana, davend late and quick.

          Also couldn’t daven without a minyan saying davening out loud and singing.

          As they say been there and done that.

          Now your idea od discrimination is utter stupidty. Either way the unhealthy has to stay home. Its not like they get to go out. The point is at minimum do what you can for those that are risk free. Sucj crooked drei kup logic

    • Not “The_Truth” at all, and an unwarranted slur against Jewish people. (Why is it that those who choose nicknames like “Truth,” “Honest,” “Emes,” and so forth turn out to be the ones peddling the biggest untruths?) Do you think that people have been standing out in the cold and the rain just so they can socialize? They’ve been doing it because we Jews know in our bones the importance of tefillah betzibbur, and because the alternative – davening in private in one’s house – is likely to lead to a general laxity in davening altogether (“I don’t need to do it now; I’ll get around to it later,” for example).

  6. The OU issued a set of nebulous guidelines, such as prohibiting severely obese people (it did not define what it meant by that term), as well as people over 65 year of age, even if they were healthy. It prohibited kissing ritual objects, but did not specifically prohibit handshakes or kissing, which it should have. Also, it came out with some guidelines about people not congregating at exits near Shuls. Good luck with that one; has everyone ever noticed how people will deliberately stand in the way by exits when people have to exit a shul?

  7. In theory, one can create a minyan today that doesn’t pose risk,
    But the question is can that theory be translated into reality

    yes it can. We have been doing this for a month already. yet BH zero new calls in over two weeks. The numbers speak louder. Porch minyan works

    You agree its safe and are just worried about relaity? Well reality is the koach of an amen yihah sham raba saves lives. Unless it “poses risks” your fears of reality don’t concern us.

  8. So far i didnt hear any sound reasons for opening up and risking lives. Just as people cant control themselves from talking in shuls the same way they will break social distance rules. So who wants the guilt of people getting sick on their shoulders? But dont worry at least you will be able to tell the government that they cant control you, ha!

    • The sound reason is that its an essnetial to us and our continuance. You may feel otherwise but for us its an essential. Its the way we get close to the eibshter and it defines a frum yid and is our essence.

      So as things reopen since BH the curve is down and even better in our community than others this essential need takes a precdent with guidelines to ensure its safe.

      For those that davened with a minyan todaym we said,

      ומי שׁמיחדים בּתי כּנסיות להתפּלל ….ויסיר מהם כּל מחלה וירפּא לכל גופם

      Got it?

  9. So my neighbor in Flatbush made a minyan in his yard this morning for the first time, 12 people came from different homes, 11/12 were not wearing masks, 2 people were sneezing
    Need I say more

  10. The author of this article totally misrepresented the Dallas Orthodox rabbinate’s latest letter. They did not agree to disagree. The fact is that the physical plant of each shul varies widely, as well as the populations of each shul. Hence they all agree that the practical implementation of reopening for each shul will look different.

  11. By Rabbi Yechiel Spero
    Let me tell you an absolutely beautiful Corona story.
    There is a fellow in Toronto who asked Rav Shlomo Miller if he can make a porch minyan, and Rav Shlomo paskened for him that there was no problem with it. And so, he had a minyan every day on his porch and in his neighbor’s porch; together they had a minyan, and that’s what they did every day from Pesach and on.
    Well, on Lag Ba’omer at night, at 9:00 at night, they decided they wanted to have a little bit of a kumzits. But before they played music at 9:00 at night, the father decided he wanted to ask two of the elderly women who lived near them, Jewish women, but completely not religious. And he knocked on one’s door and he says to her, “I don’t know if you know who I am…”
    She cuts him off and says, “Oh, I know very well who you are! You’re the group that I pray with every morning.”
    “Pray with?”
    He says, “Yes. Ever since you’ve started praying on your porch, I lay in bed and I pray with you. It’s been decades, but it’s so beautiful. And not only that, but I called up my son and I said to him, ‘You find your tallit and your tefillin and you pray as well. These people are praying, even in the snow (in Toronto it snowed after Pesach) if they can pray, then you need to pray as well.’”
    And of course, she was more than happy to allow them to play music and to sing.
    We have to remember how important it is for us to be ‘living Kiddush Hashem’, every moment of this difficult and challenging situation. And Im Yirtzeh Hashem, as we continue to be Mekadesh Shem Shomayim, we will inch closer and closer to our return to our Batei Knesios and Batei Midrashos, Bekarov.
    Inspiration Daily

    • Mammash an even more touching story… The week following purim wedding halls run by EVIL DEMS were shutting down and you could not make a wedding. My neighbor’s cousin’s brother-in-law aunt was due to get married but the COMMIES were not going to let it happen. They asked a Rov about making a wedding and he said they could do it and guess what they did it. Was supposed to be 50 men and 50 women but so many were inspired that a few hundred showed up. It was truly inspirational to see this when so many were panicking. The rav said that panic is worse than the magefah. That a few people got sick and died as a result, does not take away from the great kiddush hashem made that night.

      (or we can be adults and realize that stories for children is not a way for an adult to make decisions… that someone is inspired is not proof that something is worthwhile… Otherwise there are many inspirational things that you don’t hold by which I would suggest you engage in… maybe a toeva parade which many here are very preoccupied with would be good for you as I understand thousands if not millions finds those inspirational.).

  12. High risk were ruled by doctors and Rabbanim not to go to Shul reopenings.
    Included in high risks are clinically obese. Clinically obese is defined as more than 20% above ideal weight.
    Ideal weight, medically, is 100 lbs. for first 5 feet of height plus 5 lbs. for each additional inch. That would be, for a 6 ft. tall person to be ideally 160 lbs. and that 6-foot tall person over 192 lbs. being clinically obese.
    Basically almost all of us men over 40-50 are clinically obese and at ch”v high risk, and should not be allowed at these shul openings.
    Maybe Dr. Fauci himself is not clinically obese. He looks kind of thin and presumably eats healthy.

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