How the British Jewish Community Is Keeping Tradition Alive in the Time of Coronavirus Lockdown

Jewish communities in the U.K. find creative solutions to staying connected and safe as Jewish coronavirus deaths are reportedly 2.3 percent of nation's total

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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An Orthodox Jewish man wearing a protective face mask looks at his cellphone as the spread of the coronavirus disease continues, London, April 6, 2020.
An Orthodox Jewish man wearing a protective face mask looks at his cellphone as the spread of the coronavirus disease continues, London, April 6, 2020.Credit: ANDREW COULDRIDGE/REUTERS
Danna Harman
Danna Harman

England’s oldest synagogue, the 350-year-old Bevis Marks, which has held continuous services for longer than any other synagogue in Europe and famously stayed open throughout the Blitz, closed last month, and remains shuttered. This hasn’t stopped Rabbi Shalom Morris from being in touch with his flock. He’s busy posting daily YouTube sessions from within the empty building, sharing anecdotes about its history and showing off the holy objects.

And he is far from alone: The orthodox synagogue St. John’s Wood is offering live Q&A sessions on koshering for Passover via the video-conferencing app Zoom; Chabad Belgravia is hosting virtual “Thank God It’s Friday” family sing-alongs; and the JW3, London’s popular Jewish Community Center, is streaming everything from comedian Ashley Blaker doing stand-up to former chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sack discussing morality.

Rabbi Morris: Passover Haggadah In Isolation

Similarly to what’s going on elsewhere around the globe, London’s diverse Jewish communities have been coming up with creative solutions to both staying connected, and to keeping Jewish tradition and religion alive and kicking in these unprecedented times of the coronavirus.

“We all realize that this is going to be the new normal for some time and we have to adjust to being a virtual community for now,” says Rabbi Joseph Dweck, the senior rabbi of The Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi Community of the U.K., an umbrella organization made up of several member and affiliate synagogues, including Bevis Marks.

He and the S&P’s other rabbis have almost never been busier, he admits: fielding calls from long time congregants as well as others who might have not been to services for years, but who are now reaching out for support: be it spiritual, psychological or financial. “People are feeling isolated. They are confused and they are worried. And that is where we can come in,” he says.

Inside the Bevis Marks Synagogue, London
Inside the Bevis Marks Synagogue, LondonCredit: Edwardx

Dweck and the other community’s rabbis divide up the work among them: One is taking on the Zoom morning minyan, another the Kabbalat Shabbat Zoom. A third is chanting Zoom prayers for the sick.

Meanwhile, over at JW3, chief executive Raymond Simonson and his team realized that while many are indeed feeling isolated during this period – there are just as many others feeling overwhelmed by the sudden shift to virtual life, and the cascade of nudges and prompts coming at them from Facebook, WhatsApp, email, Twitter, and e-newsletters to join one online Jewish event or another.

“We are getting hammered with content. My phone is pinging so much I don’t know where to look,” admitted Simonson, who, besides having insight into Jewish community issues, happens to be married to a senior mental health nurse with the National Health Service.

The JW3, which typically had 4,000 to 4,500 visitors of all stripes coming through its Finchley Road doors every week before it locked up last month, moved fast to reinvent itself as a different kind of communal one stop hub – an online one. Now on their newly set up, free site one can find, and tap into, the various events this virtual season: talks, culture, movies, prayers, family events and more, being offered across the U.K. Jewish community, as well as some beyond, in the wider Jewish world.

“The message was ‘stay at home!’ but people were not staying at home. We wanted to make that easier, and to play our role in keeping people safely apart, at home – while at the same time together. Users can start the day with an Orthodox Shacharit at Southgate United, and then go join a tea with [Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism Rabbi Laura] Janner-Klausner after,” says Simonson.

Hand sanitizers and kashrut

Over in Belgravia, Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson – one of the Chabad Lubavitch’s 120 emissaries spread around the U.K. – has recently been focusing much of his attention on getting the Chabad “Seder to Go” boxes – containing everything from maror (bitter herbs), matzo, and a toy frog to a Seder plate that doubles as a placemat – out to those who need them.

Chabad “Seder to Go” boxes – containing everything from maror (bitter herbs) to matzo
Chabad U.K.'s “Seder to Go” boxes – containing everything from maror (bitter herbs) to matzoCredit: Bentzi Sudak

“Every shaliach (emissary) gets in touch with their congregants to see who needs what,” Kalmenson explains. “You would be surprised. There are many people, even those you might not expect, who are struggling: from young professionals who have lost jobs and feel strained for money, to others who want to celebrate Passover but have no idea how to organize a Seder without their parents and grandparents around.”

In total, Chabad Lubavitch U.K. has, over the last three weeks, produced 4,000 of these “Seder to Go” boxes which will be distributed around the country, says Bentzy Sudak, chief executive of Chabad in the U.K. “Usually on any given year we have between 3,000 and 3,500 people joining Chabad communal Seders around the country,” he says. “But about a month ago, we realized that this was not going to happen – and we started figuring out how to bring Seder to them.”

>> After N.Y.C. outbreak, fearful British ultra-Orthodox fight to stave off coronavirus

A man writing gift tokens as the boys around him celebrate Purim in Stamford Hill, London, March 10, 2020.
A man writing gift tokens as the boys around him celebrate Purim in Stamford Hill, London, March 10, 2020.Credit: SIMON DAWSON/REUTERS

Chabad proceeded to procure boxes from one factory, containers for the different Passover items from another, labels from a third. Wine came from here, charoset from there, and so on. Then, the boxes were assembled in an empty 3,000-square-foot synagogue hall, where small groups of volunteers, all in wearing gloves and masks and maintaining social distancing, toiled away.

Those boxes are now being ferried out to the needy, but they can also be ordered by anyone in the U.K. or Ireland, and brought right to their doorstep, after Chabad partnered with Deliveroo, the leading food delivery app company, for the occasion.

In other making-Passover-a-little-easier news, the kashrut division of the London Beth Din announced a series of relaxations from its strict Passover kashrut rules this year, to help those in self-isolation relying on delivery or just unable to get supervised products.

For example, quinoa from all sources got a green light, as did regular milk, pure butter (though not kinds with lactic culture) and pure fruit juices (without added anti-oxidants) – even without special Passover supervision. Raw kosher meat (not pickled) and unprocessed raw chicken were also approved this coronavirus year, again without the need for a “Kosher for Pesach” certification. Non-certified soft drinks, pickled cucumbers, olives, jams and tinned potatoes remain verboten.

All hand sanitizers, announced the Beit Din, are to be considered kosher for the holiday.

Burials without mourners

But for all the newfound welcome flexibility, impressive cooperation between denominations and inspiring efforts to help the weak, entertain the homebound and reach out to one another – for many Jews in Britain, the sense of confusion and the sadness cannot be so easily dissipated by a Zoom halakha class or a home delivery of shmura matzo.

St. John's Wood synagogue
St. John's Wood synagogueCredit: No Swan So Fine

First and foremost, there is sickness and there is death. To lessen the pressure on the overwhelmed burial societies, most London communities have decided that, they would allow burials to take place on the second day of Passover this year – instead of, as is usual, waiting until the interim days of the holiday.

Among the prominent members of the U.K. Jewish community who have died from coronavirus in recent weeks are Rabbi Osher Yaakov Westheim, one of Manchester’s most senior rabbis and a world-respected authority on the laws of kashrut; Dayan Rabbi Yehuda Yaakov Refson, the most senior rabbi in Leeds; and Rabbi Neil Kraft, who died only a few weeks before he was due to retire from his role at Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue.

Making these deaths even more painful is the fact that, no matter who they are – whether they get long obituaries in the Jewish Chronical or no mention at all – all of them, like anyone else dying of this disease, are unaccompanied on their final journey. In these extreme times, burials are taking place without mourners; shivas without guests.

At Rabbi’s Kraft’s funeral last week, only his colleague Rabbi Emily Reitsma-Jurman, who conducted the funeral, was allowed at the graveside. His wife of 28 years, Susannah Kraft Levene, watched the funeral, along with more than 1,000 other mourners, on her computer screen.

Finally, of concern is that, in the initial phase of the U.K. pandemic, the numbers of Jews dying out of the general public was disproportionately high, with Jews making up six percent of the total U.K. death toll, vastly in excess of the roughly 0.05 percent which is the accepted percentage of Jews in the country. Since then, the numbers have been evening out. The most recent figures correct as of April 5, according to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, show there were 85 Jewish funerals tied to the coronavirus out of a total U.K. death count of 4,934. This means Jewish deaths are now closer to 2.3 percent of the total: lower, but still high.

Professor David Katz, executive chairman of the Jewish Medical Association and emeritus professor of immunopathology at University College London, suggests some of the possible reasons for this: from the community having an older than average population, to its being concentrated in London, the disease’s epicenter in Britain, to the coincidence that Purim, with all its attendant communal gatherings, took place right as the outbreak really took off in Europe.

Jewish life, in general, is very communal and intergenerational, he says, which could also be a factor, as could be the fact that, like elsewhere around the globe, ultra-Orthodox families tend to be bigger, which can amplify the spread of the virus.

Still, Katz warns against putting too much emphasis on these early statistics, which have already changed and, he believes will change again as time goes on and the virus continues its spread outside of the capital.

A woman walks down an empty street on London wearing a face mask amid the coronavirus pandemic. March 2020
A woman walks down an empty street on London wearing a face mask amid the coronavirus pandemic. March 2020Credit: Victoria Jones/AP

It bears noting that there are no similar comparisons being calculated for other minority faith and ethnic communities – be they Irish Catholic, Muslim or Hindu.

On Passover eve, the British Jewish community was rocked by news, first reported in the Guardian newspaper, that coronavirus has pushed its two main Jewish newspapers into liquidation

The Jewish Chronicle, which began publishing in 1841, and is world's oldest Jewish newspaper, quickly put out a brief announcement: "Despite the heroic efforts of the editorial and production team at the newspaper, it has become clear that the Jewish Chronicle will not be able to survive the impact of the current coronavirus epidemic in its current form.”

The Chronicle’s rival paper, the Jewish News, founded in 1997, which only recently announced that it was planning to merge with the JC, instead also announced its closure. 

Between them, the two papers have a combined weekly print run of more than 40,000 copies and more than 500,000 online page views. Their readership is estimated to cover more than half of the U.K.’s Jewish community of nearly 300,000 people.