By: Sruli Fruchter  | 

Minyanim Return to Heights at Community Shenk Shul

Minyanim (prayer services) returned to Washington Heights on Friday, June 5, with a 10-person capacity per service at the Shenk Shul, The Commentator learned. 

Under the guidance of Shenk Shul Rabbi Matt LeVee, the shul’s safety standards for minyanim include a strict 10-person limit, a mandatory mask-wearing policy, a shortened tefillah (prayer) service and a requirement for attendees to bring their own siddur and chumash. Each minyan will have a gabbai to enforce the size limit. At this time, the minyanim are only available for Heights residents from Wadsworth Ave to Laurel Hill.

In a statement sent to The Commentator, a YU spokesperson acknowledged Rabbi LeVee’s efforts to safely begin minyanim, adding, “At this point YU campuses are not open.” It is unclear if or when the batei midrash will reopen on the Wilf or Beren campuses.

“They’re trying to get minyanim back slowly and in the safest way possible,” said Moshe Niren (SSSB ‘21), a resident of the Heights. “It’s nice to have a sense of minyan back while we all have a sense of safety.”

Nearly a week after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo released his executive order on May 20, which allowed religious services to resume with restrictions after a few months hiatus, a Google Form titled, “YU Minyanim… if, when, and where,” began circulating among YU student and alumni WhatsApp groups. The form was for potential minyan attendees who wanted to be notified about when and how minyanim would return.

On June 4, an email notified those who signed the form that minyanim would begin that day; however, they were later told that the minyanim were delayed. The following day, another email invited those who filled out the form to join the “WH Minyanim” WhatsApp group for “information regarding minyan on the YU side of the heights.” The first-round of minyanim became available for shacharis (morning services) at 7 a.m. on June 5, as the New York State COVID-19 death toll continued to drop.

Some Heights residents are excited about the return of minyanim but still expressed safety concerns. “I’m looking forward to minyanim happening again. It’s been a while and I really miss the experience of being in a community while davening,” said Liam Aron (YC ‘20), another Heights resident. “I am concerned, though, because it’s very easy to cross lines when it comes to safety. If people go back to normal too quickly, that can be dangerous. The implications of it are a bit nerve-wracking. However, I totally understand those who do in a safe way and am not saying if it's right or wrong.”

Dean of Undergraduate Torah Studies Rabbi Yosef Kalinsky first emailed students in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic on March 13 that, under the guidance of Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Hershel Schachter, there would no longer be minyanim on YU’s campuses and batei midrash would be closed. Since then, community leaders have banned minyanim and warned against presumptuously returning to prayer at the risk of endangering oneself and society. 

The day following Gov. Cuomo’s May announcement, 25 Long Island rabbis emailed community members that, in accordance with the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America, they would continue to postpone minyanim gatherings for 14 additional days. The email explained that the circumstances still warranted concern for pikuach nefesh (a potentially life threatening situation).

On June 6, Gov. Cuomo announced that once a New York region enters Phase II of the state’s reopening plan, its places of worship can reopen with 25% occupancy and with social distancing. While the rest of the state is already entering Phase II, New York City — which houses YU’s campuses — will only begin Phase I on Monday, June 8; NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio hopes the city will enter Phase II in early July.

Photo Caption: Minyanim at the Shenk Shul are under the direction of Rabbi Matt LeVee.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons