The Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Jerome Adams, briefed Orthodox Jewish leaders on COVID-19 and best practices for High Holiday services during a virtual talk and Q&A session sponsored by the Orthodox Union.

“I spent a semester at Brandies University two decades ago during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur … and I understand how important this time is for your congregation,” Adams said at the start of his remarks.

He told those on the call that “you all are on the front lines” and that “people will heed your advice in ways they won’t mine as surgeon general.” Then, Adams began to outline the best ways that rabbinic leaders can ensure their congregants are safe and healthy during High Holiday services amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Unlike other viruses, including the common cold, Adams said people can have COVID-19 and not know it. “It’s important that your congregation understand that it’s not just about how you feel and how someone looks, but assuming everyone has the virus, and putting barriers and limiting high-risk” activities.

In the context of holiday prayer, such high-risk activities include singing and reciting prayers aloud.

Emphasizing that the safest option for congregations is to be online for the holidays—“I understand the virtual option isn’t something you look to do,” Adams said, noting as a doctor he needed to say it—the surgeon general said that best option would be told hold outdoor services if possible.

If individuals must be indoors, he said, they need to wear masks at all times, remain at least six feet apart from one another, and separate times between the services to allow a room to air out and for proper cleaning to take place. He also suggested that congregations direct foot traffic with arrows or dots on the floor showing people which way to walk, and where to stand and sit.

Acknowledging that the emotional impact of remaining at home is also a vital concern, particularly for those who are accustomed to being in synagogue on the holiest days of the Jewish year, Adams said that it was important for each religious leader to evaluate things individually.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all” solution, he said. “One congregation may have mostly older congregants or be in a location with only 1 percent positivity for the virus and another congregation with 10 percent positivity.”

Adams said his family has been worshipping online since the pandemic began, and that they look forward to “the day we can once again attend in person.”

“We just have to get through this with minimal harm” to our congregations and communities, he said. “This is not forever.”

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