The Modern Orthodox community is tested, but not bested, by the coronavirus


Shabbat at my synagogue is generally a time for warm greetings, handshakes and hugs as congregants catch up on the week gone by and take stock of what lies ahead. This week will likely be different. 

An unwelcome visitor has wandered into our midst. The global coronavirus outbreak hit home in our community this week, causing several Jewish day schools to close and synagogues across the New York area to halt services. 

Nearly all of the confirmed cases of the disease in the state can be traced to an attorney in his 50s who lives and prays in New Rochelle. His entire family, whose reach extends from the SAR Academy in Riverdale to Yeshiva University — key institutions of Modern Orthodox life — is quarantined, with his wife, son and daughter testing positive for the virus. His synagogue, Young Israel of New Rochelle, has shut its doors for now, and even people who might have had casual contact with the family members at a bar mitzvah and a funeral have been tested or self-quarantined.

The interwoven patterns of the daily life of Modern Orthodox Jews – so often a source for joy and connection – now fall under the cold, harsh glare of epidemiology. In happy times and sad, we gather as a community. We send our children to many of the same schools, pray at one another’s synagogues, show up at the same conferences. The degrees of separation between us are vanishingly few. It’s no surprise that members of the Westchester family were at the same funeral as an educator at a yeshiva in Elizabeth, N.J., now under self-quarantine.

Our communities are even more tightly woven at the neighborhood level.

“Decades ago, a perceptive observer wrote, only half in jest, that Orthodoxy’s vitality rested upon the presence of sidewalks,” Steven Bayme, the American Jewish Committee’s director of Contemporary Jewish Life, told The Jewish Week. “Walking to and from synagogue on Shabbat with friends and neighbors, Orthodox Jews could converse and strengthen relationships and thereby create a robust and tightly-knit community. Similarly Orthodox day schools were enhanced by the nearby presence of a kosher pizza parlor.”

Now, in so many subtle and not-so-subtle ways, we are being asked to isolate ourselves from the community that is reflexively, instinctually our first source of solace and support.

“May we all be blessed to already enjoy the company of those with whom we are destined to be quarantined,” read a Facebook post by Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, which out of an abundance of caution postponed a long-planned conference on Jewish ethics that was to take place on Sunday. “These diseases, which can only spread because of how mobile we are across a big world, are going to remind us about what it is to live in our smaller worlds.”

With the festive holiday of Purim nearly upon us, it is hard to imagine quarantining ourselves in smaller worlds. Purim is generally marked by crowded synagogue services, carnivals, costume parades, and the exchange of food and drink baskets among neighbors. On this day of lighthearted charades, we are used to wearing masks, but not the type of masks many in our community will be wearing this year. Rabbinic organizations, like the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, have issued religious guidance on celebrating the holiday at home. 

Indeed, smaller community celebrations, like the bris of a newborn boy, are quietly being moved underground, from synagogue social halls to quiet living rooms with sparse guest lists. B’nai mitzvah ceremonies that were meant to take place amongst the company of hundreds are now being celebrated “virtually.” Trips to Israel are being postponed or cancelled. 

And yet the challenge of the coronavirus surfacing here — in our schools and synagogues — simultaneously recounts our community’s greatest strengths. 

Shira Hecht-Koller, a Jewish educator at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, praised Salantar Akiba Riverdale Academy (SAR), a Modern Orthodox day school and high school in Riverdale, for its handling of the health crisis. SAR has been closed since Tuesday morning when the father of one of its students, the Westchester man, was diagnosed with the disease.  

“SAR Academy and SAR high school have been at the forefront of creative, rigorous, value-laden and mission driven education since their inception. I have to assume that the board/administration/faculty never thought they would also be at the forefront of navigating a pandemic in a school setting and crafting policy, offering guidance and modeling leadership for a world coping with a health crisis,” wrote Hecht-Koller, herself an SAR parent. 

Since the school facility has been shuttered, “119,692 minutes of learning” have taken place virtually at SAR’s high school over the course of one day, Hecht-Koller noted. “The kids (surly quarantined teens as they might be) notice, appreciate and deeply respect their teachers in a way that is inspiring for educators and non-educators alike. It is truly unique.” 

Our community is unique, sometimes to our credit and sometimes to our chagrin. We are a people of constant exchange and dialogue. Somehow, our communal ethos of sharing has put us at the center of a global storm. Somehow, we are yet again under the world’s microscope. And some in that world, especially on Twitter, are spreading hateful words blaming Jews for the outbreak, in a replay of what was said after last year’s measles outbreak in Orthodox Brooklyn.

Our communal response to the coronavirus outbreak is twofold: On one hand, we follow the advice of health professionals in keeping one another safe, even if it means sacrificing cherished religious and social rituals. On the other hand, we find ourselves more interconnected than ever, as we exchange the names of loved ones who need our prayers and send out public calls to recite the Mi Sheberach prayer for healing with extra fervor. 

Fittingly, the prayer calls for “a healing of the spirit and a healing of the body.”  As Bayme put it, “the spiritual bonds and rewards of community surely will withstand and outlast the challenges posed by the coronavirus.”