Health Ministry eases restrictions as Israel gets coronavirus under control, allows expansion of prayers at Judaism’s holiest site and hints that synagogues may reopen by week’s end, but with conditions.
By Yakir Benzion
The Western Wall of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest shrine, reopened to worshipers Tuesday as the restrictions imposed to control the spread of the coronavirus are being eased following a drop in the rate of new infections.
The plaza at the Western Wall has been divided into separate areas to hold groups of up to 19 participants in the open air for communal prayers. Social distancing and face masks are required, and a total of 300 worshipers will be permitted in the area at any given time.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation said that should all of the prayer areas become full, worshipers will be requested to wait outside the entrances to the Western Wall, with the required distances between them, until space becomes available.
Likewise, families that want to celebrate bar and bat mitzvahs can also return to the Western Wall, but will have to coordinate their arrival in advance through the Western Wall website to ensure that the prayer area is available at the time requested.
The famous tunnels under the Western Wall, popular with tourists, remain closed.
Last month, during the Passover festival, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman was invited to be one of the select 10 men for the special priestly blessing performed at the site.
An observant Jew and a member of the priestly tribe, the ambassador joined nine other worshipers to form the minimum quorum required at the morning prayer that would normally see the nearly empty plaza overflowing with tens of thousands of worshipers.
“Last year, I was among 100,000; this year, unfortunately, far less. I will pray that the world is spared further illness or sorrow from COVID-19 or otherwise,” the ambassador tweeted.
Synagogues, mosques and churches in Israel all remain closed to group prayer because of the coronavirus crisis, but open-air prayer is allowed anywhere for up 19 people at a time with facemasks and social distancing.
Health Ministry officials said Tuesday they hope to open synagogues by Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, subject to social distancing and limiting the number of parishioners allowed within the houses of worship to 20 people and any give time.