Jewish Community Grinding to a Halt as Coronavirus Spreads


The Jewish community responded to the spread of the coronavirus with a series of draconian measures, including closing all Orthodox synagogues in southern Westchester and in Bergen County, N.J., where 13 people have tested positive for the Covid-19 virus.

Many synagogues in Manhattan also announced that they were closing immediately for an indefinite period. Those remaining open are canceling Shabbat kiddush lunches and shiva minyans at mourners’ homes. Parents are canceling bar mitzvah and brit milah parties and rabbis are performing graveside funerals only because funeral home chapels are often too small to permit adequate distancing between people.

And some are even using chopsticks, which can be thrown away, instead of silver pointers when reading from the Torah.

In addition, some synagogues are offering live streaming of daily and Sabbath services.

The spate of closures and cancellations came as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday a ban on gatherings of 500 or more people across the state “for the foreseeable future.” The cascade of closures includes all Broadway shows and major sporting events.

Anticipating that such measures will be necessary for weeks to come, at least once synagogue, the Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, L.I., canceled its planned communal Passover seder.

“Halachically (according to Jewish law) the preservation of life — maintaining health — is of paramount concern,” Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, president of the New York Board of Rabbis told The Jewish Week. “That concern transcends everything else. We don’t put ourselves in a vulnerable position health wise; that has to be the dominant thing. And you have to be guided by people with expertise in this area.”

Rabbi Potasnik said health officials have defined “social distancing” as keeping six feet apart from the next person.

In announcing the indefinite closing of the West Side Institutional Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox shul in Manhattan, Rabbi Daniel Sherman wrote to his congregants that the decision was made “in consultation with the shul’s board, along with other rabbis from within our broader Manhattan community. We recognize the gravity of the health concern here in New York City and around the world and we are doing what we can to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. … Many other local shuls have made a similar decision.”

Among them is The Jewish Center of Manhattan, which has closed for the foreseeable future after a person was diagnosed with the coronavirus after visiting the synagogue. Congregation Ramath Orah on the Upper East Side closed until further notice. Congregation Shearith Israel, The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, canceled regular services through Sunday evening, at which time the closure will be re-evaluated.

In addition, the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and it affiliate, the JCC Harlem, are both closing their buildings through March 27. In an email, Rabbi Joy Levitt, the executive director, and Sheryl Kaye, the board chair, explained that although they are not aware of anyone at either building who had tested positive for the coronavirus, they were heeding the advice of health experts who said “the best way to keep everyone safe is to practice social distancing. We want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

Also, the Jewish Theological Seminary announced that all students in JTS housing must be out by Monday, March 16 and plan to live at home or off campus for the remainder of the semester. And the Yeshiva University men’s basketball team, the winningest team in Division III this year, had its best season abruptly cut short when the NCAA announced Thursday that it was canceling all tournament games. The Maccabees had made it to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time this season.

‘The Value of Life’

Meanwhile, the only Conservative synagogue in Teaneck, N.J., Congregation Beth Sholom, announced that it is closing today [Friday] and will remain closed indefinitely.

“We feel, given the value of life in Judaism, that this is the responsible move,” said Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, the congregation’s spiritual leader. “This is what we need to do to help with the crisis that is happening around us. We may not be able to stop the spread of the disease, but certainly we can slow it down.”

That action followed the decision of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County to recommend a “community-wide policy of social distancing to protect the spread of Covid-19,” and to close all Orthodox synagogues effective today.

“There should be no house minyanim,” the organization said in a two-page memo. “All of the rabbis will be davening alone in their own homes. Please daven at home, individually. … Shiva visits should be replaced by phone/video calls. Refrain from contact sports. Restaurants should not seat customers. People should order pick-up and delivery only.”

Orthodox rabbis in Westchester issued those same directives on Thursday evening in announcing the closing of their synagogues. In its letter to the community, the rabbis pointed out that “no community has, arguably, been impacted more … than our greater Westchester community. There are many people that have not only tested positive to Covid-18 in our collective communities, but there are also several who are currently hospitalized in area hospitals and are in serious condition.”

Among its suggestions:

  • Work from home, if possible, and stay home whenever possible;
  • Discourage children from having playdates with different families in their homes or at other homes.
  • Pray at home individually.
  • There should be no public celebrations.
  • People should not gather for Shabbat meals.
  • Phone or video calls should replace shiva visits
  • Funerals should be restricted to a small group of family members and a minyan.
  • Ritual baths, or mikvaot will remain open but by appointment only. Women under quarantine, experiencing symptoms of illness or who have a family member who has tested positive for Covid-19 may not use the mikvah.

Rabbi Lester Bronstein, spiritual leader of Bet Am Shalom synagogue in White Plains, said his Reconstructionist congregation has been closed for a week-and-a-half and would like to reopen but won’t do so without approval from the health department.

“We have a bar mitzvah scheduled for next Shabbat,” he said. “The family has already told guests not to come, that the service is just for the immediate family, and maybe we will allow a small minyan of 20 people.”

On Long Island, Orthodox rabbis in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway issued a statement in which they recommended that synagogues refrain from offering a Sabbath Kiddush to prevent congregants from gathering in one place and socializing, that people leave the synagogue immediately after services and not congregate in the lobby, that synagogues cancel all shul-sponsored social events and spread people out over different times and spaces when they are in the synagogue.

“If a Covid-19 outbreak happens in our community, it could last for a long time,” it said.

The president of the Long Island Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Joel Levinson, told The Jewish Week that his synagogue, the Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, L.I., sent an email to members asking that those in the high risk category — over the age of 60 and with a compromised immune system or serious chronic medical conditions — not come to services. Similar emails were sent by other synagogues throughout the region.

In addition to banning gatherings of more than 500 people, Cuomo capped attendance at 250 for venues that hold fewer than 500 people. Levinson said that to comply with that directive, his synagogue would be opening the doors to the ballroom and adding extra chairs on the Sabbath so that congregants could sit at arms-length distance from one another.

“In our email, we asked that congregants refrain from kissing the mezuzah and siddurim, that they not hug or kiss the Torah or the tzitzit, and refrain from a number of customs, like covering your eyes when saying the Shema — right now we don’t want people touching their eyes, although you can still close them. We are trying to be very clear about what is possible and appropriate while trying to be calm and not anxious.”

Levinson said also that his synagogue has decided to cancel a trip to Poland that had been planned for May.

“After the travel ban was announced, it helped us to make the decision to postpone the trip,” he said. “And we canceled the communal seder because most of the people who come are in the high risk category. It is unfortunate, but we want to be responsible and proactive – to do everything we can to ensure the maximum amount of wellbeing to society.”

In the meantime, the Boro Park Jewish Community Council announced it is “expanding its annual Passover food campaign, adding critical food items. This year’s food allocation will reach nearly 1,000 families through home delivery. This will allow recipients to avoid long lines, longer waits, and limit the chance of exposure to the coronavirus.”