In Israel, Coronavirus Makes the Annual Simhat Torah Dancing a Whole New Ballgame

In Jerusalem there was less kissing of the sacred Torah scrolls, but it turned out that a soccer field or parking lot could be a cracking good place to spend the holiday

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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Socially distanced Simhat Torah celebrations at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, October 10, 2020.
Socially distanced Simhat Torah celebrations at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, October 10, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

The coronavirus has changed so much around the world, even Simhat Torah, the one-day holiday that marks the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings.

On Friday evening and Saturday, play areas in Neveh Yaakov, an Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem, were turned into makeshift synagogues replete with chairs and holy arks. The parking lots were also prepared ahead of time.

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For many, though, it was clear that this would be a holiday celebrated at home with the children.

Normally, at the “yeshiva students’ synagogue” of the moderate Lithuanian – non-Hasidic – segment of the ultra-Orthodox community, hundreds gather on holidays. This time, they held their celebrations at a nearby soccer field.

The goal posts became jungle gyms for children who had trouble sitting on a chair. The basketball court nearby was the women’s section and the playground served as a, well, playground for the smaller children.

“It took quite an investment of money,” one of the synagogue wardens said, “but our rabbi, who was diagnosed on Rosh Hashanah and has since recovered, was very strict about the coronavirus issue and decided not to take any chances.”

As a result, the dancing around the Torah took part in the open air.

On Friday dancing was minimal, especially among the smaller circles of fathers and sons. But it looked entirely different the next day. The worshippers, most of them young yeshiva students, couldn’t contain their excitement and danced wildly while holding up plastic chairs as partitions between one another.

Most of the worshippers, even children, properly wore masks, give or take the occasional slippage that happens to the best of citizens.

Simhat Torah celebrations at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, October 10, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“We’re trying to do our best but we have no choice but to continue to live with corona,” the synagogue warden said. “For months we’ve worshipped in ventilated synagogues as much as possible, and thank God we saw no cases of the virus spreading inside the synagogue.”

That is, save for three Yom Kippur worshippers who sat close together, he said.

But for Simhat Torah, a few dozen children gathered in a side hall, which turned out to be a strategic entrance where bags of candy were being handed out.

The synagogues competed for who would get the best goodies, which were closely guarded by older children. Many children darted in and out of synagogues in search of the best goody bags.

Simhat Torah celebrations at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, October 10, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

About 20 members of the Ethiopian Israeli community celebrated at a soccer field as well. They also danced and worse masks, completing their circle dance more swiftly than others.

On Edmond Peleg Street, another Lithuanian prayer quorum also spread into a parking lot, masked worshippers dancing with ropes.

Similar festivities took place in other parking lots as well. It turned out that in the coronavirus era, women normally separated by physical dividers were able to get a closer look than usual.

Two Sephardi synagogues held their hakafot, their circle dancing, outside too. But not everyone worshipped outside.

Some synagogues held hakafot indoors while adhering to the mask and social-distancing rules. The members’ usual dance routines were canceled and they stood in place as some of them held up Torah scrolls. No one was allowed to kiss the Torah.

The Israeli settlement of Neveh Yaakov in East Jerusalem in the foreground, separated by a concrete barrier from the Palestinian town of al-Ram, West Bank, January 27, 2020.Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP

But about 15 people at a Chabad synagogue held a festive meal and no one was seen wearing a mask. Four police officers were called to Neveh Yaakov to find someone who had the coronavirus and went outside. The neighbors didn’t wait for the holiday to end to call the police.

So far, one person has died of COVID-19 in the neighborhood of 30,000.

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