Orthodox body representing 50,000 urges U-turn on ‘distressing’ shul closures

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Orthodox body representing 50,000 urges U-turn on ‘distressing’ shul closures

Pressure mounts on government as Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations joins chorus of religious voices calling for places of worship to remain open during the second lockdown

Tali is a reporter at Jewish News

Mill Hill United synagogue under Covid restrictions, including social distancing and masks (Credit: Marc Morris)
Mill Hill United synagogue under Covid restrictions, including social distancing and masks (Credit: Marc Morris)

The Chief Rabbi and Charedi leaders have urged the Prime Minister to let synagogues stay open for communal prayer during the latest lockdown, arguing there is “no scientific rationale” for them to close.

Pressure is building on Number 10 to reverse its policy after the representative body of more than 50,000 strictly Orthodox Jews joined Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis in telling ministers to let communal prayer continue.

The interventions came only days before places of worship were set to close for a month, except for private prayer, as senior Orthodox rabbis told Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick that it had caused “shock and pain”.

In a marked change of tone from the lockdown earlier this year, Mirvis and other religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to the Prime Minister to say they “strongly disagree with the decision to suspend worship during this time”.

Alongside senior Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Pentecostal representatives, Mirvis said the scientific evidence “shows that social solidarity and connectedness are key to people maintaining motivation to comply with Covid-secure measures and to maintain good mental health”.

“There is no scientific rationale for suspension of Public Worship where it is compliant with the guidance that we have worked jointly with government to establish.”

After Boris Johnson’s address to the nation on Saturday, outlining a national lockdown until 2 December, Mirvis originally said it was “imperative” to close synagogues and that communal prayer in breach of coronavirus regulations would be a “desecration of God’s name”. But a day later, several well-known United Synagogue rabbis broke ranks, including Rabbi Harvey Belovski of Golders Green.

On Tuesday the Federation of Synagogues, an Orthodox umbrella body, told Jenrick to rethink the decision on places of worship, claiming “synagogues can continue to function as places of communal prayer without introducing any significant risk in transmission of the virus” if they continue adhering to present restrictions.

On Wednesday the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations went further, calling for a U-turn on both communal prayer and weddings, saying: “It is painful and distressing, and at odds with people’s lived experience, to hear this spoken of as non-essential. It is one of the most fundamental aspects of daily life.”

The Union added that the government’s wedding “prohibition” was a “disproportionate intervention in a profoundly personal and fundamental aspect of people’s lives… A wedding ceremony is not a luxury or an extra, it is essential.”

In Stamford Hill, the Jewish Community Council (JCC) echoed those sentiments, adding: “Religious essentials are paramount to faith communities, especially during a national health crisis… It is important those values are protected.”

Among the first to complain about the government’s decision  was Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet of Mill Hill United Synagogue, who told his local MP that he was “baffled, having finally created a well-oiled-machine, to have to shut down again”.

The letter from leading religious leaders to the Prime Minister echoed these claims, writing that faith leaders had demonstrated places of worship can be “made safe from Covid transmission”, writing that there is “no scientific justification for the wholesale suspension of public worship.”

Jenrick said: “We owe it to the country to act and to act swiftly. It is by taking these tough decisions now that we will get through this together.”

The Board of Deputies had previously asked the government for data on the spread of coronavirus to explain the decision to stop religious services in the new lockdown in England.

There have been 541 Jewish funerals carried out after contracting coronavirus for the week ending 30 October, an increase of seven funerals from the previous week.

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