We are not frequent shul-goers. I wish we were a family that went to synagogue semi-regularly, but wishing something doesn’t make it so, and I guess I haven’t wanted it badly enough to make it happen. Still, in the “before times” I enjoyed services for the singing, the feeling of community, and to some extent, the children’s programming. And I won’t lie, I spent a lot of time in the social hall talking to people I like but don’t see outside of shul.
All that has changed now. Our shul hasn’t had in-person services since early March, but according to the weekly email newsletter they’re starting up again at the end of August. Naturally, there are some strict guidelines in place in the interest of public health. In summary: you have to sign up in advance, stay in your seat 6 feet away from everyone else, bring your own siddur (prayer book), and don’t touch anything. Children’s programs and kiddush luncheon have been axed for now. Oh, and no congregational singing — the leader can sing or chant as required, but the rest of us will have to hum if we want to participate vocally.
My first thought upon reading that email was, What’s the point? Everything I love about shul has been stripped away; what’s left is a bare-bones service that my kids wouldn’t sit still for. And they do have to sit still, because otherwise they might get too close to someone not in our family.
Of course everyone attending the service will be wearing a mask. To be clear, I think this is a good thing. I’m a proponent of masks; In 2003 I was a music therapist in a nursing home during the SARS epidemic. I wore a mask for four hours straight while I sang all the hits of the 1920’s and 30’s. No harm came to me. I’ve been assuming that mask-wearing would be fine for me in 2020 as well — until I went to Lowe’s last week with K. After wearing the mask for forty minutes, my chest was hurting from the effort it took to breathe. The upside was that obviously my mask has a decent seal and is keeping stuff out. The downside? Some of the stuff the mask is keeping out is air that I need to breathe, and my lungs can’t work that hard for that long. I think curbside pickup is going to be my strategy for a long, long time.
Back to the synagogue thing. On one hand, going might be nice — I’d get to see friends at a distance and hear the familiar melodies again. On the other hand, breathing might be a problem for me. On the other other hand, it’s only 90 minutes long, as they’ve cut away all of the preliminary songs, six-sevenths of the Torah reading, and the superfluous-seeming repetition of the silent amidah (for all of my non-Jewish readers, our Saturday morning services usually run at least three hours.) And on the other, other, other hand, it will not be the shul experience I enjoy nor the one I want my children to know and love. If I take them and it’s just depressing and boring, will they go with me again? Or will COVID precautions ruin shul for them forever?
It sounds an awful lot like the debate around returning to school in September. For the record, one of Mr. December’s major reasons for not sending the kids back to school is that he thinks it’s going to be a sucky experience all around. I’m feeling that way about shul right now. I know that some people go specifically to pray and to hear the Torah, and others are in mourning and need a minyan so they can recite the mourners’ kaddish. It’s kind of true that my presence there will help to ensure that there is actually a minyan for the mourners, but realistically it’s not likely to be a problem. So I ask myself, why go to shul? What’s the point?