May 12, 2020
Across North America and around the world, communities are considering how and when they should emerge from shelter-in-place practices and safely return to in-person activities.
On March 31, 2020, several Reform Movement organizations issued a statement Recommendations on Covid-19 declaring that, with the exception of strictly monitored funerals, Reform Jewish communities “should not facilitate or endorse any physical gathering of persons who do not already live in the same house.” Since that date—and in most instances even earlier—Reform Jewish communities have gathered virtually to worship, celebrate, grieve, learn, tend to community business, advocate for social justice, and perform acts of g’milut chasadim (lovingkindness).
Now, however, as the vast majority of state and local governments have begun to relax formal restrictions, including explicit allowances for worship communities to gather in person, communities are confronting understandable questions about when or if it is appropriate to reopen our synagogues, buildings, schools, and agencies. In addressing these critical questions, we urge all in our Reform Movement to remember these essential Jewish values and recommendations when making vital decisions about their course of action:
- Minyan—Jews worship in community—traditionally, in a quorum of no fewer than ten Jewish adults. During this time of social distancing, however, Reform Jewish communities have combatted social isolation and loneliness by assembling virtually for services, prayer, and mutual support. Although far from the ideal of being together in person, we emphasize the continued importance of virtual gatherings as long as is necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of our respective communities and citizens. [See CCAR responsum on virtual minyanim here.]
- Pikuach Nefesh—Saving human life is Judaism’s highest mitzvah, superseding even the commandments concerning the observance of Shabbat. According to tradition, it was permissible to interrupt the ancient Temple sacrifices when necessary to save a life. If continuing to shelter in place will help to save lives, then communities should refrain from in-person religious activities or gatherings.
- Aseih l’cha Rav—We read in Pirkei Avot 1:6, “Find yourself a rabbi.” Though often translated as “teacher,” the term “rabbi” in this phrase, in fact, suggests expertise. In our Jewish lives, we rely upon the knowledge and guidance of our rabbis, cantors, and educators. As we confront a public health crisis, though, it is the expertise of public health authorities, specialists in infectious disease, and epidemiologists to which we must look for guidance concerning the best decisions for our communities.
- Mipnei seivah takum—“You shall rise before the aged” (Leviticus 19:32). We celebrate the multi-generational character of communities throughout our Movement, including the synagogue and Jewish professionals of every adult demographic who lead them. We must not take actions within our respective communities that would either stigmatize or compromise the health and well-being of the elderly and individuals with preexisting conditions who are considered most vulnerable to Covid-19.
- Dina d’malchuta dina—“The law of the land is the law” (Shulchan Aruch). The Reform Movement is a fierce protector of religious freedom and the separation of religion and state, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism was instrumental to the adoption of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Under RFRA, neither federal nor state governments may restrict religious freedom unless there is a compelling reason for doing so; preventing the spread of a deadly disease is assuredly such a reason. Reform Jewish institutions and communities have readily and responsibly honored government restrictions on public gatherings throughout this pandemic, despite the resulting limitations on religious activity.
As governmental limitations are relaxed, Reform Jewish communities, professionals, and lay leaders should make decisions regarding the return to in-person gatherings guided by our Jewish values. We must continue to heed the advice and wisdom of experts, and when appropriate, act in accordance with specified re-opening phases, more information on which will be forthcoming, and without unacceptable risk to human life, including the lives of the most vulnerable among us.
Information on specific guidelines regarding reopening, created in consultation with experts on infectious disease and security, are forthcoming.
Rabbi Ron Segal, President, Central Conference of American Rabbis
Rabbi Hara Person, Chief Executive, Central Conference of American Rabbis
Jennifer Brodkey Kaufman, Chair, Union for Reform Judaism
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President, Union for Reform Judaism
 URJ (Union for Reform Judaism), CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis), ACC (American Conference of Cantors), ARJE (Association of Reform Jewish Educators), ECE-RJ (Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism), NATA (National Association of Temple Administrators), and PEP-RJ (Program and Engagement Professionals of Reform Judaism)
 Tosefta Shabbat, Chapter 15, as elucidated by Elana Stein Hain, PhD, “Pikuach Nefesh: The Primacy of Saving a Life, Hartman@Home: Talmud from the Balcony, Shalom Hartman Institute, April 22, 2020.