South Bay faith leaders frustrated that churches and synagogues remain closed
A Black Lives Matter sign stands on top of a garbage can next to Bethel Church's parking lot, where Lead Pastor Frank Silverii said the church's leadership plans to host drive-in services. Photo by John Bricker.

Despite a new county order Friday allowing outdoor religious gatherings of 25 people, many South Bay faith leaders are growing frustrated as local churches and synogogues remain closed.

In addition to the limitations of the county policy, places of worship are required to follow California’s latest guidelines, which include screening congregants for temperature and symptoms, not passing offering plates between congregants and requiring the use of face masks.

The state’s guidelines also encourage organizations to consider limiting group singing during services and holding services outside to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

For some places of worship, especially the more traditional ones, faith leaders say the state and county restrictions make it impossible to resume crucial aspects of worship services.

Rabbi Josh Berkenwald of Congregation Sinai said the synagogue will remain closed despite the opportunity for small outdoor gatherings and said group singing is especially important in its Shabbat services.

“I would rather continue to gather together virtually, where we can safely include all members of the community, including those who are at greater risk,” Berkenwald said in an email.

But not all San Jose churches are obeying the county’s stay-home order, like Calvary Chapel, which reopened for indoor services on May 31 after Pastor Mike McClure vowed to never close the church’s doors again.

Calvary Chapel administrator Carson Atherly said the church is trying to keep its community safe by disinfecting surfaces and that reopening indoor services is necessary to help those who are hurting spiritually.

McClure declined an interview.

Lead Pastor Frank Silverii of Bethel Church in San Jose said churches that defy the county order may be “throwing caution to the wind” and should reconsider their actions.

Still, Silverii said he doesn’t understand why retail businesses can now allow people inside while churches cannot and he plans to reach out to the county to voice his concerns.

“I just don’t understand the difference between those,” he said.

Congregation Sinai and Bethel Church have both faced challenges with operating remotely that make normal aspects of their worship services difficult or impossible to execute.

Berkenwald said Congregation Sinai is hosting weekly services on Zoom, although the synagogues’ rules discourage using technology on the Sabbath, and that singing and praying in unison over Zoom doesn’t work because of the lag.

“If anybody tries to sing together through Zoom, it sounds like chaos,” he said.

Both Bethel Church and Congregation Sinai continue to operate despite financial concerns stemming from shelter-in-place because of support from parishioners. Bethel Church was even able to continue and grow its missionary work abroad.

“I’m not exactly sure how the math works out,” Silverii said, adding that Bethel Church has not seen the financial loss it expected because some congregants saw an opportunity to give more while others are unemployed.

Berkenwald said congregants at Congregation Sinai expressed interest in supporting the synagogue’s hourly workers while it remained closed due to the public health order. Congregation Sinai set up an emergency fund that provides pay and benefits to cooks, custodians and nursery school teachers.

“We felt that it was our moral and religious obligation to continue to employ them,” he said. “They’re counting on receiving their pay and benefits in order to be able to meet their needs.”

While they’re eager to resume in-person services, leaders at Bethel Church and Congregation Sinai say they’re prioritizing safety with no plans to resume indoor services until the county approves.

Meanwhile, Silverii said Bethel Church is developing a system that would allow for drive-in Sunday services, where sermon audio would be transmitted into churchgoers’ cars by radio.

Berkenwald said he fears that the coronavirus can spread through Santa Clara County just as quickly as it did months ago.

“I fear that the Bay Area may experience a spike of cases centered around religious institutions in two to three weeks,” he said in an email. “I do not want to be responsible for that.”

Contact John Bricker at johnmichaelbricker@yahoo.com or follow him @JohnMichaelBr15 on Twitter.

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