‘It’s knocking on everyone’s doors’: Chicago’s Jewish community is battered by second wave of coronavirus


(JTA) — When Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann and her colleagues gathered in a backyard earlier this month to sing together, they knew it would likely be the last time for the foreseeable future.

COVID-19 case counts in Chicago were rising sharply, and the mayor and governor warned that new restrictions would soon be necessary to curb the disease’s spread.

So the team at Mishkan, the nondenominational congregation that Heydemann leads, bundled up against the November chill to record dozens of Shabbat songs. Heydemann said she is hoping the recordings, deployed during virtual services, “will keep us warm through the winter” — one spent at home, alone.

Like many places, Chicago is facing its most serious wave of coronavirus infections since the start of the pandemic. This week, the city’s 7-day test positivity rate hit 16%, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced this week that 1 in 18 Chicagoans had been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the previous week. The city is confirming thousands of cases of COVID-19 daily, with many more in the northern suburbs where many of the area’s nearly 300,000 Jews live. Local Jewish leaders say there are hundreds of cases in the community, and the number of people hospitalized is increasing.

The situation bears a grim resemblance to the darkest days this spring in America’s largest Jewish community, New York, which was hit early and hard by the pandemic.

“In this second wave, we’re experiencing what we heard and feared that was going on at Pesach [Passover] time in New York,” said Rabbi Shaanan Gelman, rabbi of Kehilat Chovevei Tzion in Skokie and president of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, a local Orthodox rabbinical group.

A homegrown effort to trace cases within the city’s Orthodox population is struggling under the onslaught of new cases, and Jewish organizations are holding pop-up events to screen community members for COVID-19. But for now, local Jewish schools remain open, citing evidence that their protocols for containing the spread of the virus within their walls are working, even if students are getting sick elsewhere.

“The reopening plan in preparation was a significant undertaking,” said Addie Goodman, president and CEO of JCC Chicago, which operates seven early-childhood centers. “We do have confidence that we know how to operate in this environment.”

That confidence, which extends across many of Chicago’s Jewish institutions, comes from having successfully dealt with a handful of cases during the summer and fall. “We’ve never had to close down any of our schools or any of our synagogues because of a secondary case,” said Ben Katz, a professor of pediatrics at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and an expert in infectious diseases, speaking of the schools and synagogues in Chicago and surrounding suburbs he has advised on how to operate safely during the pandemic.

At Katz’s congregation in Skokie, one person who attended in-person outdoor services on Rosh Hashanah tested positive for the coronavirus the day after the holiday. But with the preventive measures that were in place — social distancing and mask wearing by all attendees and a service held outdoors — no other attendees were infected.

At the Ida Crown Jewish Academy, a Modern Orthodox high school, there have been only four COVID-19 cases so far, according to the school’s dean, Rabbi Leonard Matanky, who also leads Congregation K.I.N.S. in West Rogers Park. “But because of the measures we’ve taken, we did not have to quarantine any of the students,” he said.

At other day schools, classes have zipped in and out of quarantine as needed while the schools themselves remain open. Out of 55 classrooms in the JCC centers, about five have closed temporarily because of cases among students or family members, Goodman said, adding, “But we’ve really prepared our parents that this might be something that happens.”

But there are signs that the streak of effective protocol and good luck may be coming to an end. 

At the Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov-Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi, an Orthodox girls’ school with over 1,000 students, more than 50 students and staff were quarantined after testing positive last week, leading to 360 students having to isolate due to exposure, according to a letter sent to parents last week. Principal Ahuva Wainhaus said Tuesday that the number of students who had tested positive had grown since last week.

COVID-19 cases within the school community began increasing at the end of October and early November, Wainhaus said, calling November “a very difficult month.” But she said the school had remained strict about its own protocols, which required students and staff to wear masks at all times in the building, except when eating, and to remain in strict pods.

Still, the school rules couldn’t keep students from being infected in other places with less strict precautions. She said there was one local yeshiva for adult men where almost every single person tested positive. Many of those men had children in her school. “It really appears it’s coming from elsewhere,” she said.

Manya Treece, a local social worker who started a contact tracing project specifically to anonymously trace COVID-19 cases within the Orthodox community, said there were so many cases that it was often hard to know where the infection came from.

“It’s pretty hard to find where people contracted COVID, a lot of people that we’ve spoken to really don’t know,” Treece said. “When the positivity rates are this high, it feels like it’s literally everywhere.”

With tracing nearly impossible, Treece’s organization, Community Counter, has shifted its focus to education and connecting people to resources like counseling and hotlines for answers to questions about quarantine procedures.

The initiative released a video Monday featuring community members calling on their fellow Jewish Chicagoans to be vigilant about wearing a mask. “I’m your neighbor. Please wear a mask,” the rabbis, doctors, dentists, teachers, mothers and elderly community members repeated.

While a belief that herd immunity may have been achieved has contributed to anti-mask sentiment in some of New York’s Orthodox communities, that belief is less common in Chicago, which was not hit as hard by the virus in the spring. Still, some community leaders say that anti-mask influence has increased in recent months, making education about preventing the disease even more important.

“There are people who just, whether it’s because of exhaustion, fatigue, or because of a distrust of science or politics or something else, are not going to be as careful,” Matanky said.

Katz said he had heard of doctors from outside the local community who cast doubt on the efficacy of masks and distancing, which seeded doubt in local efforts to stem the spread of the virus. “When two doctors are saying different things, it’s hard for lay people,” he said.

“It was so straightforward in the spring because you just had to stay in,” Treece said. But now, she said, with frequently changing government guidelines and some people believing that precautions are unnecessary if they already tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, “there’s too many gradations of what you can do to stop the spread that it’s confusing.”

Against the backdrop of increasing cases, some schools and synagogues are retooling their approach. Beginning this week, the Bernard Zell Jewish Day School, an independent day school for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, will test all students and staff on campus twice a week.

Gary Weisserman, the head of school, said they’re hoping the testing will identify asymptomatic infections and provide a more specific positivity rate for the school community that could help it determine whether it’s safe to stay open.

“The city of Chicago may be at almost 16% this morning, but if we’re less than 1%, that mitigates in favor of us staying in person,” Weisserman said. “By the end of this week, we’ll have a pretty good sense of what that is.”

To Matanky of the Ida Crown Jewish Academy, keeping children in school all day is, in some ways, safer than having them at home. “For nine hours a day we have supervision of students to make sure they are maintaining distance and wearing masks,” he said. Students aren’t allowed to even pull their masks down inside the Ida Crown building to take a drink of water. “If they were out of school, we’re not so sure that that would be the case,” he said.

And being in school every day means the students’ families are constantly reminded of what is expected of them outside of school, causing them, the schools hope, to avoid gathering for Shabbat meals and celebrations in the kinds of small gatherings that officials say is driving spread locally and nationally.

Matanky added: “I don’t know how you can put in bli ayin hara and pu pu pu” — Hebrew and Yiddish terms meant to ward off the evil eye — “into the article, but figure out a way.”

Illinois’ governor last month recommended that houses of worship move services back online after cases began surging. But the state’s rules allow them to remain open as long as they operate below 25% capacity. The state health department also recommends keeping prayer services outdoors, though Chicago’s cold winters mean that is an increasingly unattractive option.

To Gary Slutkin, a Chicago epidemiologist who worked with the World Health Organization for over 10 years on AIDS programs in Africa, the time to halt in-person religious gatherings is now. If a rabbi were to ask him whether to continue to gather for synagogue services at this point in the pandemic, “I’d say stop,” Slutkin said. “Please stop.”

Slutkin added, “I think the right message to Chicago and to the Jewish community and anyone is, it’s time to put the brakes on again.”

Matanky’s synagogue in West Rogers Park is pumping the brakes slightly. Services are continuing, but while the synagogue had hoped to resume some other activities, including some form of childcare so parents could attend synagogue, they have since scrapped those plans. 

“We were feeling safer — not safe, but safer,” Matanky said. “Now with this spike, it’s knocking on everyone’s doors.”

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