At the beginning of last week, Jews were celebrating the festive holiday of Purim — with only limited COVID-19 concerns. But by week’s end, things got a lot more serious. State and local governments and the CDC issued edicts restricting communal gatherings; schools and synagogues announced they were closing; facilities for the elderly locked their doors to visitors; businesses faced a significant drop in customers; the sports world came to a screeching halt; and just about everyone became hyper-focused on handwashing and the art of “social distancing.”
The fast spreading coronavirus impacted our daily lives — so much so that even in an age of suburban sprawl, reclusive social media use and increasing social isolation, the idea of virus-motivated social and business restrictions felt foreign. Yet it is our new reality.
In New Jersey, the Bergen County Rabbinical Council ordered the closure of synagogues and prayer groups, urged restaurants to restrict business to take-out and recommended against all non-essential travel. Its reasoning was clear and correct: “Slowing the spread of the disease will allow our hospitals to best manage this situation. The only way to do this is for us to socially distance ourselves from one another. Moreover, the doctors emphasized that the most significant community closure possible will make the greatest impact in potentially saving lives in our area.”
On March 13 in Pittsburgh, shortly before Shabbat, Rabbi Daniel Yolkut of the Orthodox Congregation Poale Zedeck ceased all programming at his synagogue, including daily and Shabbat minyans.
“Our current stance regarding the complete cessation of public tefillah (prayer) is rooted in the need to impress on all of us the paramount halacha of pikuach nefesh (saving a life),” Yolkut wrote in an email to his congregants. The rabbi also stressed that he was “firmly opposed” to people organizing private minyans in their homes.
Yolkut quoted Rav Hershel Schachter in emphasizing: “It is not a midas chassidus (act of piety) to ignore sakanas nefashos (danger to life).”
The interconnected nature of religious observance makes Judaism remarkably social. Now, within our busy, engaging and embracing Jewish community, it felt a bit like the welcome lights were being turned off. And many in our community felt alone, left to fend for themselves, in an increasingly threatening world environment.
The challenge going forward is to figure out how to keep connected in an isolated world. Moving school instruction, synagogue services and other communal gatherings online may be only part of the answer. According to Rabbi Joshua Ladon, the West Coast director of education for the Shalom Hartman Institute, other pathways for connection will have to come from carefully orchestrated volunteer activity, designed to address communal needs: “It is counterintuitive but clear that if we are going to get through this social distancing, we are going to have to do it together … Social distancing does not mean quarantine. This is a time to make sure everyone in our communities has the food and supplies they need, and to mobilize those who can deliver goods.” And, it is a time to approach religious rituals and community interactions with heightened ingenuity and a new sensitivity.
Creativity will be essential going forward to keep us connected Jewishly, and people have already begun to act. Last week, on Purim, dozens of volunteers in Westchester County, New York, organized by Chabad, visited more than 130 locations where Jews were quarantined to read the Megillah outside of their homes.
We are in uncharted territory. Even as we look to our medical, religious, political and social leaders to help develop approaches to address our new challenges, each of us must still fend for ourselves and our families and pursue a course that helps ensure the physical and emotional safety of those around us. While that may mean more handwashing, social distancing and telecommuting for us, it should also mean looking to friends and neighbors to do what we can to help them. We can worry about everything else once the serious health threat passes. PJC