Opinion |

I Just Moved From New York’s COVID Ground Zero to Israel’s. It's Much Worse Here

We spent three weeks quarantined in our hometown, New Rochelle. But in Jerusalem, we’ve found lockdown, little leadership and a pandemic out of control. Our dream of return has turned into a nightmare

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.
Samuel Heilman
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Israeli protesters against laws banning attending demonstrations more than 1 km from their homes scuffle with police, Tel Aviv, October 1, 2020.
Israeli protesters against laws banning attending demonstrations more than 1 km from their homes scuffle with police, Tel Aviv, October 1, 2020.Credit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS
Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.
Samuel Heilman

In March of this year, I was still living in the city of New Rochelle, in New York’s Westchester county in, when I found myself in ground zero of the COVID-19 outbreak in the state.  

A member of my synagogue had come down with the novel coronavirus and as a result all of those who were in the synagogue at a funeral where "patient zero" had been present were to be quarantined.

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It was the first time I had experienced something like this, and although I could still patter about in my backyard and the rooms of my house, the lockdown felt very much like house arrest; it drove my wife and me nearly stir crazy.  

Ironically, during the nearly three weeks we were restricted to our home, and becoming minor media celebrities for our reactions to what at the time was a new experience for Americans, we were actually being saved from the pandemic, which was spreading quietly and exponentially throughout the state of New York.  

By the time we were released from our quarantine the number of daily cases in New York was above 10,000 and the state was fast becoming the epicenter of the virus in America. We were now able to go out, but the world into which we emerged was rife with virus and we learned not only how dangerous it had become but how for us, among the population over 65, the risk of death from catching it was enormous

New York Army and Air National Guard arrive to sanitize and disinfect the Young Israel of New Rochelle synagogue, center of a COVID-19 outbreak in New Rochelle, NY. March 23, 2020
New York Army and Air National Guard arrive to sanitize and disinfect the Young Israel of New Rochelle synagogue, center of a COVID-19 outbreak in New Rochelle, NY. March 23, 2020Credit: ANDREW KELLY/ REUTERS

A few of our friends had already succumbed and we took the threat seriously. Indeed, my wife and I never again set foot inside our synagogue, even when months later restricted services began again, limiting our worship to outdoor gatherings with masks and distancing that our congregation organized in members’ backyards.

While Donald Trump spread lies about the pandemic and allowed it to proliferate, our governor in New York, Andrew Cuomo, who also had been slow to appreciate the seriousness of it, at last began to turn his attention to "flattening the curve," and offered sober daily briefings in which he provided straight-forward reports of what was happening and outlined concrete and easy to understand directives of what was permitted and what prohibited.  

We learned about areas that were "containment zones"; we accepted restrictions – even when they led to economic hardship; we learned to wear masks (and signs on the highways that encouraged this and presented this practice as a way of showing "New York strength and toughness.")  

While the White House was politicizing masks and virus updates, New York’s Cuomo and the whole state apparatus took the politics out of it, and created clear benchmarks for a return to normal, all based on the number of cases (and increased widespread testing).

Each day he came on television and social media and we all watched the numbers fall and the curve flatten as the state slowly reopened and went from over 11,000 cases a day at the peak in April, to 502 in mid-July and 408 on August 23, the day my wife and I got on our aliyah flight for Israel. 

By the day we left, New York and our city of New Rochelle had become one of the safest places to be during the pandemic.

Shoppers at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on September 24, 2020, a day ahead of a nationwide lockdown aimed at curbing a surge in coronavirus cases.
Shoppers at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on September 24, 2020, a day ahead of a nationwide lockdown aimed at curbing a surge in coronavirus cases.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP

Arriving in Jerusalem the next day, we once again went into our second quarantine, now as new immigrants. We could not see our children and grandchildren who all live here. We were in our small apartment, with no backyard to patter around in and far fewer rooms.  

Our only escape from inside was to take down the garbage, a task we usually hated but which in the face of quarantine became one we competed to do – just to get out of the apartment if only for a few moments. 

But while we were inside our quarantine, outside again the pandemic exploded as it had during our first isolation in New York. But now as we watched, Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, were headed the opposite direction from New York.

Once having controlled its numbers, the Israeli government had lost command over the population and the virus. Unlike New York, that had turned itself around and kept a tightened control on and depoliticized the pandemic, Israel seems to have gone the other way. 

Israeli police try to control a crowd of mourners during the funeral of Rabbi Mordechai Leifer, in the port city of Ashdod, Israel, October 5, 2020.
Israeli police try to control a crowd of mourners during the funeral of Rabbi Mordechai Leifer, in the port city of Ashdod, Israel, October 5, 2020.Credit: Tsafrir Abayov,AP

With no single sober voice coming out of the government here, we have encountered zigzags in the messages from a government divided against itself, no clear benchmarks towards which we are headed, no daily briefing that is consistent, and straightforward or based on understandable criteria.  

In place of a governor who seemed laser-focused on the virus outbreak and directed by science and health advisors to whom he deferred and worked even on weekends and briefed the people seven days a week like clockwork, we are faced now in Jerusalem by a government arguing and divided over what to do, a prime minister flying off for a photo-op outside the country with the very American president whose mismanagement has made America a place with more corona deaths than anywhere on the planet, and who will now be paying the price himself for his own egregious flouting of public health guidelines.  

Now with our personal quarantine over, we face a nationwide lockdown, but one in which we do not even know exactly what it will entail. For Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we had very abbreviated services on the street in front of our neighborhood synagogue. The neighborhood echoed with the sounds of the shofar – that reminded us we were in a Jewish state. 

Medical staff members prepare their protective gear before entering a COVID-19 ward converted from an underground parking lot as Israel enters its second national lockdown, Haifa, September 30, 2020.
Medical staff members prepare their protective gear before entering a COVID-19 ward converted from an underground parking lot as Israel enters its second national lockdown, Haifa, September 30, 2020.Credit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

But with the lockdown, we had to worship away from  our kids and grandchildren who live outside of Jerusalem, but with the exponential growth of the infections we don’t know if we will be able to have any normal life, or when we shall see our loved ones outside of Zoom, or on a smartphone.  

We know that life here will have to change but we are not sure how much or how we will know when things are going to improve.  The clarity we had in New York and even the hope for some return to normalcy has been replaced by confusion here in Jerusalem, and no sense of what normalcy might be. Little leadership, plenty of arguments and lots of garbled information.

What we thought would be the light at the end of the tunnel has turned into an entrance into yet another tunnel.  We feel as if our dream of aliyah, our return after 2000 years of Diaspora, has turned into some sort of nightmare. We have come so far, and we feel as if we are still so far away.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York 

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