Zoom a Boon in Coping with Outbreak


Can someone on Zoom be included in a minyan?

Does hearing the Megillah online count as a mitzvah?

This Purim, observant Jews — and their rabbis — were dealing with a range of halachic questions that have taken on a sense of urgency during a global coronavirus outbreak that has hit the Modern Orthodox communities of Westchester and Riverdale particularly hard.

As of Monday, 28 members of the SAR (Salanter Akiba Riverdale) “family” of students, faculty and parents, have been diagnosed with the virus, including 15 students, according to Rabbi Naftali (“Tully”) Harcsztark, founding principal of the high school. As a result, the school closed March 3 and will remain so until March 16.

With more than 1,500 of their elementary, middle and high school students quarantined at home, educators at the Modern Orthodox co-ed day school in Riverdale, explored some of those issues of Jewish law this week with their homebound charges via Zoom video conferencing. High school students had four classes a day — two in the morning on Judaic topics and two in the afternoon on secular studies, according to Rabbi Harcsztark.

“There’s a certain novelty about Zoom, and there’s a sense that the students are stepping up and are very engaged. It’s been great,” he told The Jewish Week of the pedagogical experiment. He noted that the Judaic classes in recent days focused on how leading Orthodox rabbis in Israel and the U.S. apply ancient laws to contemporary issues — in this case, performing certain mitzvot while quarantined.

With SAR being the first school in the U.S. to close due to the coronavirus, Rabbi Harcsztark said it was “very striking for the students to hear from Chief Rabbi David Lau of Israel,” whose rulings on topics related to being confined to home were issued the day before their class discussion on Zoom. “It was powerful for the kids, realizing they were at the epicenter of all this.”

Indeed, though the Modern Orthodox community makes up only about 4 percent of American Jewry, according to Mark Trencher, president of Nishma Research, it has played a highly disproportionate role in the local crisis, accounting for about half of the cases of the coronavirus in New York State, with a population of more than 19 million, though the number of people with the virus continues to grow.

It is believed that at least 1,000 people under quarantine in New York can trace their connection back to the Westchester attorney who was the state’s second person to test positive for the virus. He is a member of the Young Israel of New Rochelle, has a son who is a student at Yeshiva University and a daughter at SAR. Each of those institutions has been closed by state health authorities.

Observers note that the Modern Orthodox community is highly concentrated, with members tending to live in close proximity to each other (to be within walking distance of a synagogue). These days, it seems like everyone in the community knows someone with the virus.

“We all know each other,” Trencher observed. “We go to shul together and hang out together socially. And the six degrees of separation feels more like two or three in the Modern Orthodox world. But at a time like this, our closeness becomes a high-risk factor.”

Brandeis University Professor Jonathan Sarna agreed, noting that “the enormous benefits of being part of a close-knit community” in times of celebration or illness “can be its undoing when closeness is what you don’t want. At a time of an epidemic, it can be a terrible danger.”

But the community has shown deep resilience, creativity and empathy in coping with the medical crisis, including widespread calls for prayer on behalf of Eliezer Yitzchak ben Shifra (Lawrence Garbuz), the Westchester man who has been hospitalized for several weeks.

Faced with the issue of keeping quarantined students engaged for up to two weeks, SAR administrators and teachers have been inventive in their use of Zoom. In addition to the virtual classes, the elementary school had a Friday morning concert with popular Orthodox singing star Mordechai Shapiro, and held a Zoom bar mitzvah for a student who was able to have friends and family witness the ceremony online. A post-Shabbat Havdalah service was seen by more than 1,300 people on 380 devices, and students showed off their Purim costumes to each other by video prior to the holiday. In addition, students were able to visit via Zoom with an SAR teacher sitting shiva.

In one extracurricular activity, the high school students watched cooking lessons with their teachers showing them how to make kreplach and other Purim standards.

Boaz Siegel, an SAR eighth grader and budding musician, posted an original music video about being quarantined. “I’m just stuck at home, not free to roam; in one place like a garden gnome,” he sings. “Cause I’m quarantined; the most boring thing you’ll ever see.” 

“We’re trying different ways with Zoom to get the kids connected,” Rabbi Harcsztark said, and the sense is that it’s working. Faculty feedback has been positive as well. For one recent class that he taught on Zoom, the rabbi said he was able to divide the students into different groups but could only view one group at a time. He said he was delighted to observe the groups learning on their own, with no adult supervision.

“It’s been an adventure,” he said.

One tantalizing question raised by the Zoom experience is whether the technology can be further utilized in day schools to reduce school costs. The soaring prices of tuition is the No. 1 concern in the Modern Orthodox community.

With so many students stuck at home, several kosher establishments in Riverdale and Westchester are offering free pizza delivery, and many volunteer groups have been organized to deliver food and other services to those who are homebound.

A number of synagogues used Zoom this week for Megillah readings, Purim services and parties to allow congregants under quarantine, or those simply heeding the medical authorities’ call for “social distancing” and avoiding crowds, to participate.

The Young Israel of Scarsdale, closed by local authorities, held a Megillah reading in the courtyard outside of the synagogue Monday evening attended by a quorum of ten men and viewed by more than 350 people at home.

One town over, Rabbi Reuven Fink, longtime spiritual leader of the Young Israel of New Rochelle, also closed by the authorities, shared his feelings online about having tested positive for the virus. “Together we can persevere and triumph over these challenges,” he wrote in an op-ed for JTA (see page 24). “A crisis can bring out the best in people,” he said. “It is bringing out the best in us.”

Mark Semer is a former president of the 388-member synagogue, perhaps the hardest hit of the local congregations. He echoed Rabbi Fink’s praise for all those “doing wonderful things to help us support one another while scrambling” to deal with health department requirements. Many in the congregation are under quarantine. Semer said that more than 20 members of the local Chabad congregation visited Young Israel members confined to their homes on Monday evening and read the Megillah for them while standing outside.

Calling Zoom “the hero of this crisis,” Semer said that a 90-minute Purim costume party was held for children on Zoom on Monday night, and a bat mitzvah party was held Sunday night. The entire congregation was invited, and Rabbi Fink addressed the honoree.

“Individually, we are sitting home,” said Semer, “but continuing to be a community and doing the best we can.”

Shabbat after-services kiddush and luncheons were canceled by some congregations, with the food donated to local charities. On Tuesday, volunteers from around New York and New Jersey delivered mishloach manot (Purim treats) to people under quarantine.

The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR, or The Bayit) offered a wide range of Zoom services, including several group sessions hosted by members of the rabbinic team, inviting congregants to discuss their ways of coping with the crisis.

I participated in a session with five others, led by Rabbi Ezra Seligsohn, who encouraged us to take our “emotional pulse.” There were worries shared about the extent of the crisis and its financial implications and whether or not to visit family and friends under the current circumstances. We each noted the importance of staying connected to others at this time. Harriet Jackson, an independent scholar, said she found the outreach exercise “reassuring and comforting — for myself and others.”

Rabbi Seligsohn shared his own “limited bandwidth” in trying to be in touch with the congregation’s 500 family units and “coming to terms and accepting the limitations of my role.”