‘Desperate Time’ As Passover Nears


As the coronavirus spreads and authorities warn of its particular dangers to those 60 and older with underlying health issues, Jewish senior centers have experienced what was described as “a tremendous drop” in attendance, many synagogues canceled Purim carnivals and there is uncertainty about upcoming communal Passover seders.

Dozens of upcoming conferences, meetings and events were cancelled by Jewish groups this week as the number of people testing positive in New York State rose to 173 by Tuesday, with a significant cluster in the Jewish community.

Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein of Congregation Beth Ohr in Bellmore, L.I., said it is “too early to tell” whether to proceed with the community seder her congregation runs with a neighboring congregation.

Zahava Wapner, a special education teacher, said she was planning to fly to Israel next month for her family seder. But this week, the State of Israel ordered a mandatory two-week quarantine for anyone entering the country. Although the order is slated to last for two weeks, she fears it will be extended.

“I need a Plan B,” said Wapner, who teaches at the Modern Orthodox Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy and High School, known as SAR, in the Bronx. The school closed last week after at least one student was directly exposed to the virus that causes Covid-19. “My family is all in Israel. I’m due to fly April 2.”

At least three kosher-for-Passover resort programs have already decided to cancel because of the virus. Two are in Italy — which this week ordered all 60 million residents to remain at home until April 3 in a dramatic bid by the Italian government to stop the spread of the virus — and one in Thailand.

Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, last week warned lawmakers of the danger Covid-19 coronavirus poses for vulnerable people. During Congressional testimony, he said it is “like the angel of death for older individuals.”

To help contain it, Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week deployed the National Guard to a one-square mile area of New Rochelle that is centered around the Young Israel of New Rochelle, where the second positive case of the virus was confirmed in the state. It is believed to connect many of the cases of the virus in the region.

The National Guard will assist in cleaning schools and delivering food to quarantined residents, Cuomo said.

He described the area as “probably the largest cluster” of cases in the U.S. with a total of 108 cases.

“As the numbers continue to go up, we need a special public health strategy to contain it,” Cuomo said, noting that beginning March 12 all public facilities within the containment zone will be closed, including schools and houses of worship, for a two-week period.

He said the National Guard would clean the schools there as well as deliver food to quarantined residents.

One of those in the containment zone who has been quarantined in his home with his wife and three teenage children for a week is Mark Semer, a former president of the Young Israel of New Rochelle. He said that on Tuesday’s Purim holiday the Chabad of Westchester arranged for a number of its members to go door-to-door to read the Megillah to those who are quarantined.

“They were outside and we listened through a screen from a distance,” Semer said. “Obviously, I didn’t want to let them get too close.”

Rabbi Jonathan Morgenstern, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Scarsdale, said his congregants have been helping “friends and family members who live in New Rochelle by dropping off groceries to those who have been quarantined. We’ll try to help the National Guard get kosher food” for those families.

“We border New Rochelle — we’re just about three miles away,” he said. “Most of our shul’s children are under quarantine …. I am now in a precautionary quarantine, and there are perhaps 150 adults in our shul who are also quarantined.”

To be able to read the Megillah, Rabbi Morgenstern said he assembled 10 men who read it in an area outside of the shul.

“We were advised to read it outside to mitigate the risk,” he said. “And we live streamed the service to everyone. We had 340 computers logged in.”

Rabbi Bernstein of Bellmore, L.I., said that while her congregation held its Purim carnival on Sunday, the Midway Jewish Center in Syosset – just 13 miles away – canceled its Purim carnival on Monday.

She said congregants were encouraged to stay home on Purim if they felt ill, and that “we sent out links for congregants to livestream” the Megillah reading.

One of the links was to the livestream from Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan, which broadcast the Megillah reading both Monday night and Tuesday morning. The congregation’s rabbi, Rachel Ain, said 400 viewers logged in for the Tuesday morning reading.

Meanwhile, Dorot, an organization that serves about 3,500 seniors annually — 2,500 in their homes — is increasing the amount of frozen food it is leaving its homebound seniors.

“They get one week’s worth of food but with the virus, we are doubling up on the meals to ensure they have at least two weeks of food in their freezer,” said Mark Meridy, Dorot’s executive director. “We want to be prepared. Should Dorot staff need to isolate themselves because someone here gets sick or there is a problem in the city, we want to make sure our clients have the necessary food so we can fulfill our mission.”

Deborah Joselow, chief planning officer of UJA-Federation of New York, said that although senior centers “are open at the moment, we have seen a tremendous drop in clientele. … The centers know who their seniors are and they understand that something is wrong. They will have to go to those seniors who don’t come.”

She said they have asked staff to document the extent of the decline in attendance and predicted it would get worse now that the mayor has encouraged seniors not to take crowded public transport.

“It’s a desperate time,” Joselow said.

No future UJA-Federation events have yet been canceled, although Joselow noted that the annual Westchester Celebration scheduled for last week was canceled because of concerns about the virus. Some 400 people had been planning to attend.

One of the honorees, Rikki Kaplan, said that because the cancelation occurred at the last minute, the kosher food had already been prepared.

At UJA’s request, Foremost caterers repackaged it into 600 separate meals, and 18 volunteers and staff from UJA-Federation’s Westchester office distributed them in time for Shabbat to the homes of those who had been quarantined in New Rochelle.

“My friend, Jane Alpert, and I delivered 16 meals to 16 families,” Kaplan said. “They had been notified that the food was coming and I left it at their doors. … We made lemonade out of lemon and it was a very good feeling.”