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As State Reopens, Berkshire County Congregations Will Be Slow To Return

A brick building with a metal sculpture of a tree with hebrew letters in its boughs
Josh Landes
Knesset Israel in Pittsfield, Massachusetts

As Massachusetts slowly begins to reopen, Berkshire County faith leaders are preparing for a new approach to congregational worship.

Under Governor Charlie Baker’s guidelines for reopening, houses of worship were allowed to reopen starting May 18th. But some faith communities aren’t jumping at the opportunity.

“The way things will look this Shabbat is not really dissimilar from the way it’s looked over the past two months,” said Rabbi Neil Hirsch.

At reform temple Hevreh in Great Barrington, Hirsch says the community is organizing its own phased reopening plan to create a slower alternative to Governor Baker’s.

“We started with the value in Hebrew of pikuach nefesh, of saving a life – that what we’re doing by social distancing, by physical distancing is actually caring for one another and helping preserve one another’s lives – even the lives of the strangers that we would never meet," the rabbi told WAMC. "And the governor’s decision doesn’t change our commitment to that value.”

“I really appreciate that the state has affirmed our freedom to practice our religion, and yet, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility," said Rabbi David Weiner. "I think Spider-Man said something similar.”

Weiner serves the Conservative Jewish community of Knesset Israel in Pittsfield. He says he appreciates how complicated the reopening policies are, given the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic. But many questions remain before he feels comfortable throwing open the synagogue doors.

“We’re wondering how to require and encourage people to stay home if they’re feeling sick – beyond saying it," said Weiner. "How do we keep several feet apart inside the sanctuary and on the way in and out? What kinds of protocols do we need to encourage hygiene? How do we do contact tracing if need be – recording people’s attendance?”

Weiner says the summer attracts seasonal congregants – many of whom skew older, and are thus more susceptible to coronavirus.

“Can we do something like hold services outside, as was recommended in the document?" he asked. "Our property would accommodate it, but will the weather? Will people be able to hear or see?”

He’s preparing for the disruption of spiritual life to continue well into the year.

“We’re not sure when the bar mitzvah services we postponed from this month will take place," the rabbi told WAMC News. "We don’t know what high holidays will look like in September – and we just kind of have to be OK with that.”

That sense of disjuncture doesn’t discriminate between faiths – even those who have a timetable in place to reopen.

“There’s omission of the sign of peace. No communion by the cup, communion in the hand only," said Father Dariusz Wudarski, a pastor at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in North Adams. For the first time since March, Mass will resume in the church starting May 30th.

“What we implemented, the church will remain closed and locked until 45 minutes prior to Mass beginning," said Wudarski. "So people coming in will be instructed to begin entering the church in an orderly fashion, maintaining of course social distancing and protocols.”

Congregants will be escorted in by ushers wearing masks and gloves to their seats.

“For contact tracing purposes, prior to seating, parishioners will log their names, phone numbers, and the number of members in their party,” the pastor told WAMC News.

The parish is holding a meeting with its volunteer ushers on Tuesday to practice the new safety measures. But despite instruction from the state and the Springfield Diocese, Wudarski says questions still remain.

“According to the state guidelines, it’s 40% of church capacity – which is kind of a number that is very vague, because, for instance, our church has 600 capacity of parishioners," he said. "Well, 40% - so it would be 240 people, and yet, we would not be able to maintain the physical distancing, so we have to lower even this 40% number.”

For more information on Governor Baker’s reopening plan for Massachusetts places of worship, click here.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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