The Kollel Jewish Learning Center’s annual Health Expo usually focuses on theoretical issues. Not this year.
Instead, the Kollel’s 2020 Health Expo addressed the reality that “life has changed for everyone,” said Rabbi Doniel Schon, associate Rosh Kollel, during the Dec. 6 Zoom program. “We’re in a very different place than we were last year when we had the Health Expo.”
For months, Pittsburghers were less affected by the coronavirus than those in other communities, but now the rising number of positive COVID-19 cases in Allegheny County indicate “we’re really in the midst of it,” said Kollel Jewish Learning Center Dean Rabbi Levi Langer.
For this reason, it’s critical to receive guidance from medical and spiritual experts, he said.
Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, associate rabbi of Young Israel of Woodmere and chief of infectious diseases and hospital epidemiologist at Mount Sinai Nassau, was the keynote speaker of the event.
Glatt repeatedly stressed the importance of following CDC guidelines, which call for wearing a mask, remaining at least six feet apart from individuals one doesn’t live with, avoiding crowds and washing one’s hands often.
“I don’t want to be on this soapbox and be yelling at people, but this is critically important: The most important halacha of COVID that I can tell people is to listen to the advice of the medical experts,” said Glatt. “They know what they’re doing — that’s what they do.”
During the past nine months there have been numerous instances in which individuals have failed to heed the overwhelming advice of respected medical authorities, Glatt said. These individuals — some of whom are either rabbinic or medical professionals themselves — are not only providing a disservice to their communities but violating Jewish law and rejecting long-held views of Orthodox Jewish leaders, he added.
When individuals “don’t understand what’s going on, and they say they know better than the CDC, that they know better than the expert doctors, Shulchan Aruch says you’re supposed to ignore them,” Glatt said. “Whether these people have rabbi or doctor as their title, it’s assur (forbidden) to listen to them. You’re m’chuyav (obligated) to listen to the experts, that’s what it says in Shulchan Aruch.”
Each individual has the ability to stem rising COVID-19 numbers, continued Glatt, and one way to do so is by mitigating risk. That doesn’t necessarily mean shuttering schools, businesses and synagogues. Rather, keeping these institutions open if it “can be done within the allotted parameters” should be a goal, he said. The problems start when individuals act irresponsibly, such as holding a kiddush or food-related event indoors with unmasked parties.
These types of activities are “horrible,” Glatt said, both because of the risk of COVID-19 transmission and the likelihood that communal institutions will have to close.
“We’re right there at the cusp of the vaccine, and God willing, the vaccine will save hundreds of thousands of lives,” said Glatt. “People who are anti-vaxxers, they have to understand that that’s not what the halacha says.”
In speaking with several rabbinic leaders, including Rabbi Mordechai Willig, Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, Glatt found the rabbinic consensus is that taking the vaccine is “an obligation” because “it will save lives.”
Before concluding his remarks with the hope that proper Chanukah observance would result in restored health for the sick and bring messianic redemption, Glatt reminded listeners of the power each person holds: “Everybody has the potential to help with this problem.”
Following Glatt’s address, Dr. Marc Itskowitz, associate professor of medicine at Temple University School of Medicine and director of the Center for Perioperative Medicine for the Allegheny Health Network, discussed the history of COVID-19’s spread and the current strain on local health institutions and medical professionals due to surging cases. Stefanie Small, director of clinical services at JFCS, described acceptable risk-taking in the current climate, and Rebecca Weinberg, clinical psychologist and director of clinical operations for the Perinatal Depression Program at Allegheny Health Network, offered parenting advice and mental health tips.
The closure of synagogues and communal institutions has been challenging, said Langer, and there is no way of understanding why God would allow this pandemic to occur, but “our job is to find out how we can work according to the health guidelines and to keep ourselves vigilantly healthful.
“Our job is to turn to Hashem and daven to Hashem at this time, and perhaps also to find within that a greater appreciation for prayer, to the ability that we have to connect to Hashem, now that we’re somewhat missing it.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.