Local Jewish institutions prepare for coronavirus
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CoronavirusPittsburgh prepares

Local Jewish institutions prepare for coronavirus

Synagogues and schools focus on prevention, communications

Photo by wildpixel/iStockphoto.com
Photo by wildpixel/iStockphoto.com

The spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, has affected many public and governmental institutions. Travel has been restricted, some schools have closed and festivals like SXSW in Austin, Texas, have been canceled.

The Jewish world has not been immune to the scope of the virus. In New Rochelle, located in Westchester County, New York, three Jewish day schools had been closed indefinitely as of press time, and nursing homes and senior living facilities had suspended visits from friends and family.

Pittsburgh has yet to identify anyone infected with the virus, but local Jewish institutions have been working to help members avoid an outbreak and create plans to deal with one if necessary.

COVID-19 is a new strain of the common coronavirus, which was first identified in the mid-1960s and most typically causes mild, cold-like symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person by those who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet) and through respiratory droplets produced when a person coughs or sneezes.

“As of this morning, there have only been 19” deaths in the United States, Dr. Jennifer Rudin, an infectious disease specialist, explained on a March 9 Zoom call with various Jewish institutions and congregations organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “That is unbelievably low.” (As of press time, that number had risen to 26.)

In contrast, Rudin noted, influenza has already been responsible for 18,000 deaths this season. That number may rise “as high as 46,000 by the time the flu season is over, and we have medicine and a vaccine.”

Tthe CDC is recommending relatively simple prevention procedures. These include: washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and cleaning and disinfecting objects that are frequently touched.

That advice is being followed by local congregations. Temple Emanuel of South Hills let its members know the synagogue “installed more hand sanitizer dispensers in the building, is encouraging handwashing and is disinfecting railings and doorknobs more frequently,” according to Executive Director Leslie Hoffman. Additionally, Temple Emanuel leaders are “discouraging handshakes and hugs,” urging members to bump elbows instead.

In an email sent to members, Congregation Beth Shalom recommended the same procedures. Additionally, members were reminded to use utensils when serving food and to avoid kissing ritual objects.

Synagogues have not yet cancelled services or large public events such as the recent Purim shpiels and carnivals.

Warren Sufrin, president of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, said the synagogue, which regularly holds events attended by 50 to 100 people, has no plans to cancel programs now, but will follow whatever guidelines the CDC recommends.

No congregation that responded to queries from the Chronicle had plans to cancel or make alternate arrangements for any b’nei mitzvah service.

The JCC of Greater Pittsburgh has not cancelled any programs or activities either, according to President and CEO Brian Schreiber. Schreiber is a part of the JCC’s national response team. “Our programs are continuing as scheduled while we monitor developments to best address hygiene as well as increasing routine environmental cleaning within our facilities.”

Hillel Academy did decide to cancel its family Megillah reading on March 9, citing “an overabundance of caution.” Head of School Rabbi Sam Weinberg said the event regularly draws 250-350 people from the community. “There’s no mandate for us to stay open” for the reading, he explained.

The school is following CDC guidelines, Weinberg said. Ironically, many students and teachers have missed class due to the flu. Because of that, Hillel Academy had already started exploring online alternatives to class like “Google Hangout and teleconferencing.”

Community Day School is using its experience fighting the flu as a guideline to fight the novel coronavirus, as well.
“We’re maintaining the routines that we have every flu season for hygiene,” explained Head of School Avi Baran Munro. “We’re ramping up the washing time and making sure that people have enough supplies for sanitizing. We’re just making sure that happens more frequently.”

A segment of the population that seems to be hit particularly hard by the virus is seniors.

In Washington State, 19 residents of one senior care center who tested positive for COVID-19 have died after being diagnosed with the virus as of press time.

Because of this vulnerability, “we’ve been in regular conversations with the Department of Health for the past two weeks and have been participating for about the past week in daily conference calls with the health department, the county health department and the state health department,” Deborah Winn-Horvitz, Jewish Association on Aging president and CEO, said.

“We’ve already made a large number of changes,” she said, “like restricting large groups from coming into our residences, and we’ve canceled group outings and have stepped up our cleaning protocols.”

One community event that will continue, with or without the virus, is funerals. Ralph Schugar Funeral Chapel Director Sharon Ryave Brody said that they are monitored by “government agencies to ensure that all funeral homes are abiding by the laws and guidelines for the cleanliness, safety, health and protection of the community.”

She said Ralph Schugar practices “universal precautions, which is the approach that any and all remains could carry an infectious disease and are treated as such, meaning that the funeral director wears full protective gear, from hair covers, face masks, waterproof gowns, double gloves, down to shoe covers.”

Pittsburghers will feel the impact of the virus if they travel to Israel. The Jewish state has announced that any international travelers will be quarantined for 14 days before being allowed in the country.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh has canceled its Volunteer Mission and postponed its Campus Ambassador Mission to Israel. Classrooms Without Borders has postponed both its Israel Educational Leadership Seminar and its Children’s Village Service Learning Seminar. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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