New York Area Day Schools, Temple Close in Coronavirus Scare


Concern over the global coronavirus outbreak hit home for Jewish institutions this week when a Jewish day school in the Bronx closed its campuses and a Westchester synagogue halted services because of a suspected case of the disease.

The families of students at the Salantar Akiba Riverdale Academy in Riverdale received an email notice on Tuesday morning that the entire school was closed due to “a suspected case of coronavirus in our community.”   

School administrators said in the notice that the closing was a “precautionary measure” and that the school was in touch with the city’s health department. No other details were given. Calls to SAR for comment were not immediately returned.

Westchester Day School in Mamaroneck and Westchester Torah Academy also closed on Tuesday, according to multiple media reports.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday that a Westchester man in his 50s was the second confirmed case of a New Yorker infected with the coronavirus. On Sunday, officials reported the first case: a New York City woman in her late 30s is believed to have contracted the virus while traveling in Iran.

Yeshiva University said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that one of the children of the Westchester man, an attorney, is an undergraduate student at the university in Washington Heights. The student has not been on campus since last Thursday and is in quarantine with his family, the statement said.

The Westchester man’s second child attends SAR, according to The New York Times.

It is unclear whether the Westchester case is connected to the closings of SAR and the Westchester schools. The man traveled to Miami and to Israel in recent months, the paper said. But he is not known to have traveled to any areas where there have been widespread transmissions of coronavirus.

In addition, officials in Westchester County said Tuesday that Young Israel of New Rochelle “will halt all services immediately.” The county is warning that anyone “who attended services on Feb. 22, and a funeral and a bat mitzvah at the temple on Feb. 23 must self-quarantine until March 8” at the earliest. The Westchester man is believed to be a congregant at the temple.

Unrelated to the SAR closures but in keeping with reactions around the world since the outbreak spread from central China have been the precautions recently taken by other Jewish institutions.

The response has ranged from widespread distribution of hand-sanitizer to prayer services at the Western Wall to a special prayer for those with the coronavirus issued by a group of Italian rabbis. Several groups reached out to the Chinese-American communities in several cities.

At the annual AIPAC Policy Conference at the Washington Convention Center this week, the gathering’s leaders distributed hand-sanitizer to the 19,000 supporters of Israel and warned the participants not to touch their noses or hug each other as a health precaution.

At the Chinese Embassy in Washington, the staff welcomed a delegation from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which had issued a statement of support of the Chinese people after concern about the disease began to mount.

In New York City, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Education Project sent out notices recommending procedures to follow to prevent the spread of the virus, which causes the disease known as Covid-19.

In several cities across the country, Jewish delegations patronized Chinese restaurants as a sign of solidarity with the Chinese-American community, after customers who feared contracting the disease began steering clear.

But life has largely gone on as usual, according to leaders of many Jewish organizations.

“People are not hiding” from worship services or other communal events, said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. “They’re not staying away.” With Purim less than a week away, “nothing has been cancelled, nothing has been changed,” Rabbi Potasnik said rabbis in area synagogues told him. The holiday usually draws large crowds to Megillah readings and costume celebrations.

“We’re going to do the things that are important to us,” the rabbi said. “People are still present … but they’re not shaking hands.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council-New York issued a notice saying, “There is no need to panic, there is a need to plan,” and offered advice on reducing the risk of infection.

Responding to reports of harassment aimed at Asian Americans, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs sent a letter of support to the Chinese Embassy signed by 87 local Jewish federations, community Relations Councils and other Jewish organizations.

“We are concerned about rising xenophobia aimed at Chinese people in this country and abroad,” read the letter. “We know that in such times, concern can quickly turn into hysteria, which can lead to scapegoating … We know from history, ours and yours, that such fearmongering can be devastating.”

The letter “became a major story in China,” said David Bernstein, JCPA president. “I was interviewed by every major news media outlet in China.”

He said the Chinese community in Pittsburgh had offered moral support to the Jewish community in Pittsburgh after the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018.

Bernstein called the invitation to meet at the Chinese Embassy “a transformative moment in Chinese-Jewish relations,” which may lead to the establishment of a “Chinese-Jewish Institute” designed to further strengthen relations between China and Israel and the Jewish community overseas.

The Jewish Funders Network, which is holding its international conference in Florida on March 22-24, told participants in an email that it has worked with the hotel venue and caterer to add “several new health and safety measures.”

Some Jewish organizations, like the Jewish Community Center Association, conducted online best-practices briefings for JCC directors and other local Jewish community leaders with officials from the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Rabbinic Warnings

At many synagogues, concern over the coronavirus has meant warnings against kissing the Torah or sharing cups of Kiddush wine. At communal meals, those who cut and distribute challah have been advised to wear gloves.

Some congregations asked maintenance staff to more vigorously clean public areas, and considered broadcasting worship services if health authorities warn against holding gatherings.

In Passaic, N.J., Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman of Congregation Ahavas Israel sent congregants a long email with practical health suggestions and the halachic ramifications of endangering fellow congregants. “If you infect someone (even by accident and without intent) by sneezing on them or coughing on them, you are considered an ‘Adam HaMazik,’ a person who caused damage … as such, you are liable for your damages as if you did the damage with your hand,” Rabbi Eisenman wrote.

The manager of the Soysauce Kosher Takeout restaurant in the Kew Gardens Hills neighborhood of Queens said the customer flow had remained strong, while the manager of the midtown kosher Eden Wok reported “fewer dine-in [customers], more deliveries.”

“No change,” said the manager of the kosher Hunan West in Brooklyn’s Mill Basin.

At Aron’s Kissena Farms, a large kosher supermarket in Kew Gardens Hills, a pre-Purim family event on Sunday drew a capacity throng, one shopper said.

Heshy Friedman, a longtime resident of Brooklyn’s charedi Borough Park neighborhood, said attendance at synagogue services last Shabbat seemed unaffected by coronavirus concerns. He said there has been more concern in recent years of contracting measles, which had affected charedi areas to a disproportionate degree.

Overseas, some Jewish institutions, especially homes for seniors, who are at higher risk of serious effects from coronavirus, have closed their doors to foreign visitors.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum called on organizers of trips to the death-camp site to refrain from bringing visitors from areas affected by the disease.

In Italy, which has had the third-greatest number of people diagnosed with coronavirus — after China and South Korea — a young man’s bar mitzvah plans in Milan were scaled back when regional officials prohibited large gatherings.

Matzah Shortage?

In Israel, where 12 cases of the illness had been confirmed by Tuesday, voters who were under quarantine cast their ballots in this week’s national elections in special, segregated booths. At polling sites, the Shas charedi political party handed out amulets that contained prayers and scriptural excerpts that would protect voters from the disease.

Scientists at the Galilee Research Institute said they are developing a coronavirus vaccine that may be ready for testing in a few weeks.

The Ynet news site reported that Israel may experience a matzah shortage during Passover next month, because the large number of Israelis who have cancelled their holiday trips to Thailand and Italy may result in a greater demand for matzah in Israel.

Israeli tourism officials have expressed fear about a drop in the number of visitors this year. Some Israeli tours to East Asia have been cancelled. El Al Israel Airlines has cancelled direct flights to areas of high coronavirus concentration, but an El Al spokesman here did not indicate if bookings to Israel have decreased or been cancelled in recent weeks.

Rabbi Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis said he was organizing a conference call on coronavirus measures this week with representatives of other religions, including the Catholic Archdiocese, and medical authorities. “This is something that obviously transcends faith differences.”