An Israeli Coronavirus Epicenter Finds Community in a Time of Crisis

A mix of modern Orthodox and secular Jews, many of them immigrants from North America, this close-knit community in central Israel is growing closer despite social distancing

The "coronavirus minyan" in the Avnei Hen neighborhood of Modi'in, March 20, 2020.
Lahad Cohen

The news about those infected with the coronavirus began trickling into Modi’in’s Avnei Hen neighborhood soon after Purim. First a local high school teacher tested positive, then a sixth-grader, followed by a wave of infections among neighbors who had attended megillah readings at local synagogues.

When the first people in this central Israeli city were diagnosed, they disclosed their recent movements and the results came back with many of the same neighborhood hot spots: bakeries, grocery stores, synagogues.

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“That’s how between Purim to the following Shabbat, a lot of people got sick,” says Elisheva Jacobs, 32, a lawyer who moved to the neighborhood with her husband and two daughters, drawn by its central location, abundance of parks and playgrounds, and concentration of young families.

Since then, Avnei Hen (which means “gemstones” in Hebrew), whose tree-lined thoroughfares have names like Yaholam (Diamond) Street and Odem (Ruby) Street, has become the city’s coronavirus epicenter with over 20 confirmed cases, also making it a national hot spot. The entire city, meanwhile, has 34 confirmed cases.

This is a close-knit place of some 1,500 people, where Modern Orthodox and secular Jews, a mix of native Israelis and English-speaking immigrants – mostly from the United States and Canada – mix.

At a time when many here have had to hunker down in full home quarantine, a spirit of connection and community has helped them get through, residents say. It’s also helpful that this is a place where people already knew their neighbors, they add.

“It’s a special neighborhood. There has been lots of people trying to help out, a spirit of camaraderie,” Jacobs says. “People ask, ‘What do you need from the supermarket?’ Or ‘Can someone help me get some eggs?’ Small groceries are doing deliveries, and when one family has a member who has been diagnosed, there are people who are not in quarantine offering to help,” she adds.

“If you are going to be locked up, then you want to be locked up in a community that will try to support each other and be helpful,” Jacobs says. “I definitely feel that here.”

When Israaelis across the country took to their balconies to applaud the medical services and health workers, a roar of cheers resonated across Avnei Hen.

Disinfection being performed in Modi'in on March 17, 2020.
Ohad Zwigenberg

“Everyone was on a balcony cheering, clapping. It was so nice because you don’t see people these days, but here we saw each other,” Jacobs recalls. “Everyone here knows someone who has been infected, or you know of someone. Some 20 people have been diagnosed in a small neighborhood – that’s a lot.”

Avnei Hen is a neighborhood of mostly low-rise buildings, built of milky colored Jerusalem stone, typically six to eight apartments with balconies, mixed in with some private homes and two larger housing complexes. It’s located close to Modi’in’s largest park, in the center of town, its mall and train station – all now shuttered and empty.

Neighborhood streets are relatively empty too, save for people walking their dogs or taking children out for a brief walk. Soon after the number of cases spiked here, Health Ministry workers arrived wearing hazmat suits and started sprayed the parks with disinfectant, in a scene redolent of a Hollywood disaster movie.

“We have a new reality and we have to deal with it,” says another local resident, Benji Nadler, 37, who works in content marketing and is originally from Montreal.

He immigrated to Israel with his family two years ago and moved directly to this neighborhood, which is usually referred to as “Keizer” – presumably, residents say, for the contractor who built it.

“We need to take accountability and responsibility so that this lockdown lasts as short a time as possible and that we do our part,” he adds, reflecting the mood throughout the community.

Financial assistance

Mordi Berlin’s fifth-grade son is among those who have been in isolation because of possible exposure to the coronavirus at his elementary school.

Berlin is active in his synagogue community Tzeiri Keizer (Young Keizer), where he and his friends have set up a “Kindness Committee.” This is intended to help neighbors not just with provisions but also provide financial assistance if required.

Although the neighborhood is a middle class one, with many working in law, medicine and high-tech professions, here too people are being hit by a loss of income.

This past Shabbat, the synagogue committee brought challah to those who cannot leave their homes. In addition, over the past two Shabbats, a minyan was established because the local synagogues are closed.

The group, dubbed “the Coronavirus Minyan,” features men wrapped in prayer shawls congregating on a street near their homes and praying together, all while maintaining the recommended social distance of 2 meters from each other.

“Some secular families watched, and some even joined in,” says Berlin, a 34-year-old lawyer. “It was nice to see our neighbors.”