- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Conservative and Orthodox synagogues say that Montgomery County’s strict coronavirus measures are hampering plans for indoor prayer during Rosh Hashanah, which begins Friday evening.

Montgomery County has remained in phase 2 of its reopening, limiting houses of worship to one congregant or family per 200 square feet of indoor space for services. Officials have cited the county’s high number of COVID-19 cases and related deaths.

But Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said all jurisdictions in the state could move to phase 3 beginning Sept. 4, allowing houses of worship to conduct indoor services at 75% capacity. He left the decision to reopen to county leaders.

The county’s entrenched position has outraged Rabbi Herzel Kranz of the Silver Springs Jewish Center, an Orthodox congregation.

“If it would be Christmas, [County Executive Marc Elrich] wouldn’t dare to make such a trick,” Rabbi Kranz said. “This is not the road.”

More than 100,000 Jews reside in Montgomery County, the state’s most populous jurisdiction, according to a 2017 study by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Most of them will have to stay home or use video conferencing platforms to observe the High Holy Days, the most sacred period in Judaism.

The High Holy Days start with Rosh Hashanah, which marks the beginning of the new year (5781) on the Jewish calendar, and carry through 10 days to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the holiest day of the year. The period typically is observed with longer worship services and sermons, and communal prayer.

The county’s coronavirus regulations are “frustrating,” said Rabbi Elhanan “Sunny” Schnitzer of the Bethesda Jewish Congregation, an independent synagogue that incorporates the Reform and Conservative movements.

Under the county’s restrictions, Rabbi Schnitzer’s 580-person sanctuary can accommodate a maximum of 140 congregants in sectioned-off worship pods. The congregation has opted to engage in online worship.

“We’re literally reinventing the High Holy Days,” Rabbi Schnitzer said.

The Rev. Mansfield “Kasey” Kaseman, pastor emeritus of Rockville United Church, is the county executive’s Interfaith Community Liaison, responsible for overseeing outreach to the faith community. He noted that the restrictions are the same for all faiths and were established in consultation with the more than 760 religious organizations in the county.

“Faith leaders were calling in, saying, ‘We see them [people] on the beaches, we see them in the bars. Why can’t we be doing the same thing?’” Mr. Kaseman said. “And I had to remind them what they were seeing in pictures isn’t really being permitted or encouraged to being with, and even where it is, we in Montgomery County are taking a more conservative approach, because our approach is based on science and concern for saving lives.”

He pointed to news reports about the coronavirus being spread during religious activities and events around the country, saying “We don’t want those stories coming from Montgomery County.”

As of Tuesday, Montgomery County, which has more than 1 million residents, has recorded 21,375 coronavirus cases and 795 COVID-19 deaths, the most of any jurisdiction in the state, according to the Maryland Department of Health. Prince George’s County, with a population of more than 900,000, has recorded the most cases (27,891) and 790 deaths. Prince George’s also has opted to remain in phase 2 of reopening.

Many local churches are operating entirely via remote services. A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Washington, which oversees Catholic parishes in Montgomery County, said its churches are adhering to the county’s restrictions.

Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said she is not aware of any enforcement actions against houses of worship for violating social distancing restrictions.

Rabbi Schnitzer’s congregation has held small events, such as a bat mitzvah, with fewer than 20 persons in attendance. He said they have “robust high holy days” planned online, replete with pre-recorded puppet shows and animated clips.

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