The instruction to avoid gatherings of more than 100 people to counter the spread of coronavirus was a dramatic one for observant Jews and yeshiva students, many of whom gather by that number and larger several times a day for prayer and study. While these instructions were handed down on Wednesday, on Thursday many institutions weren’t sure how to proceed.
Members of a committee of yeshivas consulted during the day with senior health officials, trying to understand what they should do. Small yeshivas which come under the Ministry of Education continue to operate as usual, but the challenge is the big yeshivas. There are some 100 institutions with more than 300 students, with a few having thousands of students. One solution is to erect screens in study halls.
A few institutions did not publicize the safety instructions at all.
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The dozens of students who gathered midday around a message board at Jerusalem’s Mir Yeshiva, the largest yeshiva in the world, focused mainly on news items posted in recent days. The message that drew the most attention was not the one with the Ministry of Health directives, which is no longer up-to-date anyway.
Instead, most of the attention was focused on photos of manuscripts written by Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the rabbi of Poznan in Poland two centuries ago. During a cholera outbreak, he instructed his Hasidim on how to reduce the spread of the disease, telling them to ventilate the synagogue and make sure that prayer groups were small, to reduce unnecessary risks.
“Crowding together in a narrow space for prayer is wrong,” wrote the rabbi, one of the most prominent sages in recent generations, “but one can pray in small groups of up to 15 people. If anyone refuses, he can be handed over to the authorities. You can mention my name as someone who warned you not to overcrowd in a small space.”
Despite the instructions on the board, which serves as the main source of information for the students at this yeshiva, there was confusion on the ground. While at the yeshiva’s main seminary some 200 people attended prayers, only 100 were allowed into the dining room at any one time, following instructions. Outside, dozens of young men waited their turn to go in for lunch. One person who exploited the situation stood by the door asking for donations.
“Shuttle services to the Kolel continued, but in a different format,” said S., one of the students. “Many people didn’t show up today. People made sure to open windows on the bus and no one sat by the driver. People are taking the ministry directives very seriously.”
Many Haredi rabbis have given permission to report to police about people refusing to go into quarantine. “Someone came to synagogue yesterday and said he was supposed to be in isolation,” said S. “Someone behind him heard that and told him he would call the police if he didn’t go into quarantine immediately. He returned home. I’d do the same, just like I’d do if someone passed through a red light and endangered others.”
Another student attests to the confusion. “In the morning they told us we were like the general school system, which was not shut down, but then they said no more than 100 people could gather in one place.” The head of the yeshiva is in quarantine after returning from France. He prays in a small group while standing behind a screen.