an older woman happily holds out her arms to greet an old friend in a large synagogue sanctuary
Congregants greet each other at Sherith Israel’s first in-person Shabbat service on June 18, 2021. (Photo/Natalie Schrik)

As local rules relax, Bay Area congregations return to their sanctuaries

The easing of indoor mask rules along with cooler temperatures and earlier sunsets have spurred some Bay Area synagogues to transition back to indoor prayer services, though Covid-19 safety protocols vary across counties and congregations.

San Francisco and Marin counties on Friday began following the looser guidelines, which now allow places of worship with fewer than 100 attendees to go maskless indoors with proof of full vaccination. Still, several synagogues are continuing to require masks.

Rabbi Ryan Bauer
Rabbi Ryan Bauer

At Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, which has held indoor services for several months, “we are keeping our masks on,” said Senior Associate Rabbi Ryan Bauer.

More than 100 people often attend Friday evening Shabbat services, he said, which exceeds the allowed number for unmasking indoors. The synagogue follows San Francisco’s guidelines for “live or recorded performances,” which allow clergy to remove masks when leading from the bimah. Bar and bat mitzvah participants who come up to the microphone to lead prayers are also allowed to remove their masks. All congregants and clergy are required to show proof of vaccination.

Emanu-El has a medical advisory team advising its leaders. “With the other recent lessening of restrictions to SF rules and the drop in Covid cases, we now felt comfortable making this change,” David Goldman, the synagogue’s executive director, said in an email. 

Congregation Sherith Israel, also in San Francisco, is requiring masks and full vaccination status for indoor worship. 

Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills held its first indoor services a week ago. The early sunsets were a factor.

“At 7:30 at night when our services were ending outdoors, it was just getting too dark,” Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit said, noting that services had not been held in the main sanctuary in over a year. Returning “felt like a moment of homecoming,” he said.

Roughly 50 people attended last week’s service, a smaller number than pre-pandemic. Masks and proof of vaccination are required, and all sanctuary doors and windows remain open. Many more congregants stream the services, a virtual option that is still being offered. 

It’s about trying to balance the greater good for everyone.

In Santa Cruz, which has much less restrictive rules, Congregation Kol Tefillah has about a dozen regular attendees at indoor services. Masks and proof of vaccination are required, though the county lifted its indoor face-covering mandate on Sept. 29.

“It’s about trying to balance the greater good for everyone,” said Angela Eisenpress, the synagogue’s president.

She said the board is meeting over the weekend to discuss whether to close windows and doors that typically remain open for extra ventilation during Kabbalat Shabbat services, now that temperatures are dropping.

“I don’t know if that’s going to turn into telling everyone to bundle up and show up,” Eisenpress said. A variety of ventilation ideas are on the table, she added.

Temple Beth El in Santa Cruz is continuing with outdoor services, fully masked. The synagogue is discussing the possibility of shifting its Friday night services to late afternoon before the sun sets.

Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland does not require proof of vaccination to attend indoor services but does require masks. The 800-seat sanctuary has seen about 20 to 30 people attend Friday evening services, about two-thirds of its pre-pandemic attendance. An indoor bar mitzvah service last week brought 150 people to the shul.

Rabbi Mark Bloom streams a live Shabbat service from Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, May 2020. (Photo/Michael Fox)
Rabbi Mark Bloom streams a live Shabbat service from Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, May 2020. (Photo/Michael Fox)

“A lot of the regulars, particularly Saturday morning, were elderly, and a lot of them are not really coming back yet,” Rabbi Mark Bloom said.

Bringing the majority of people back to indoor services is proving challenging at Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa, where attendance on Friday nights is about half of what it was pre-pandemic, bringing in 20 to 25 worshippers. Many congregants are opting to stream services from home, despite being fully vaccinated and eligible to attend in person, according to Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

“Every congregation has to decide what is right for them, and for my congregation, we’re trying to make intelligent choices based not on fear, but on a discernment of values,” Goldstein said about the decision to hold indoor services where all are masked and vaccinated.

“For a lot of our people, a huge value is being a part of a community again,” he said. “And it’s so hard to do that when you’re sitting at home and looking at your laptop.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for KTVU Fox 2 News. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.