New Jersey Jews Begin Restricted Group Prayer as Governors Urge Cautious Optimism

However, group of some 20 doctors serving the Lakewood community in New Jersey publish a letter on Sunday warning that 'the virus is still spreading and causing new infections'

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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Men praying outside a synagogue stand apart because of the coronavirus pandemic, Brooklyn, New York, Tuesday, April 7, 2020.
Men praying outside a synagogue stand apart because of the coronavirus pandemic, Brooklyn, New York, Tuesday, April 7, 2020.Credit: Mark Lennihan,AP
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

After having instructed the Orthodox Jewish community in Lakewood, New Jersey not to conduct prayer quorums over Passover, rabbis at the yeshiva Beth Medrash Govoha now say it is permissible, so long as each participant is standing on their own porch.

“We the undersigned had previously concluded that we should not hold porch Minyanim in Lakewood - precisely because we felt it was incredibly difficult to hold such Minyanim in ways that would not lead to the sorts of issues which can cause [danger],” the rabbis, who serve as Poskim, [scholars who determine the position of Jewish law on daily issues] wrote in their letter.

Bibi's got the perfect exit strategy - just not for the coronavirusCredit: Haaretz

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“However, in the short time that we had to make do without these Minyanim, we observed that the downside of not having the Minyanim was exponentially more significant than we had initially thought,” they added.

According to their instructions, which they said lined up with government guidelines, the only porches permitted to use for the Minyanim are porches which are open to only one home and do not serve multiple homes; only the family residing in the home stands on its porch, and all the adjoining backyards, front yards or parking lots should be empty.

The letter also states that neighbors who do not have their own porches may participate in the Minyan from inside their own homes only, and that “basement tenants can participate in these Minyanim while standing on their steps only – not on the landing.”

Additionally, if there is a Torah scroll, it should not be taken further than the porch of the home it is kept in.

“Nobody should ever go onto another’s porch – even if he believes he can maintain distancing,” the Poskim wrote. “If someone disregards the above, the Minyan must stop.”

“The way porches are set up here in Lakewood is that there is, overwhelmingly and typically, 10 to 15 feet between one porch to another in the separate houses and then if everybody stands on these porches which are typically in the backyards, then you could have people who see each other and that could make a Minyan,” Lakewood resident Eli Steinberg told Haaretz.

“People really need it to feel normal and if you make the rules very strict the way they did, then it will keep people closer to the side of safety.”

A woman wearing a mask and gloves leaves kosher food store in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, Tuesday, April 7, 2020Credit: Mark Lennihan,AP

Steinberg added the new instructions have been “a very big help” since they came out.

“There was probably the highest level of compliance with regard to minyanim ever because people had a very clear directive of what to do and there weren’t people taking chances,” he said. “It minimizes the potential for non-compliance.”

But concerned by the possibility of some in the community interpreting the change in policy as a sign that the situation around the coronavirus in Lakewood is getting better, a group of some 20 doctors serving the community have published a letter on Sunday warning that “the virus is still spreading and causing new infections.”

As of Sunday, New Jersey has seen 85,301 positive cases of COVID-19 and 4,202 deaths. Ocean County, which Lakewood is part of, accounts for 4,648 of the positive cases and 217 deaths. Within the county, however, Lakewood is home to a large Orthodox Jewish community which is by far the hardest-hit by coronavirus with 1,298 people testing positive.

“If we let down our guard we may see an increase in new cases and deaths,” the doctors wrote on the Yeshiva World News website.

Medical personnel transport a body from a refrigerated container at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Wednesday, April 8, 2020.Credit: Mary Altaffer,AP

“We believe that we are NOT at a point where social distancing can be relaxed yet AT ALL,” they continued. “There is no safe way to gather together (due to aerosolized respiratory droplets). It is not safe to share items between households. Visiting different households, even among family members, cannot occur yet.”

The health professionals also added there have been close to 50 deaths in the Lakewood community and tens of patients are still on ventilators in the intensive care units at area hospitals. While people aged over 60 are most affected, they mentioned that some young adults have also severely suffered from COVID-19.

Authorities in the New York area have been stressing cautious optimism in recent days as some signs of hope emerge from the data. At his daily coronavirus briefing on Sunday, Governor Andrew Cuomo said New York State may have passed the “high point” of the crisis.

After the rate of hospitalization hit a plateau for several days, it now appears to have slightly decreased.

“If the data holds and if this trend holds, we are past the high point and all indications are that we are on a descent,” he said. “Whether or not that descent continues depends on what we do, but right now we’re on a descent.”

That being said, Cuomo also warned against being too optimistic. According to him, this is only “halftime” in fighting the coronavirus. On Saturday alone, 1,300 new patients were hospitalized with COVID-19.

The downtown New York City skyline looms over pedestrians wearing masks due to COVID-19 concerns, Friday, April 10, 2020.Credit: John Minchillo,AP

“1,300 is a lot of people coming into the hospital system without diagnosis,” he said. “Less than it had been but it’s still 1,300 people who tested positive and need hospitalization.”

The recent “good news”, he said, is only good compared to “the terrible news that we were living with.”

“It’s no time to get cocky and it’s no time to get arrogant,” Cuomo added. “We still have a long way to go and a lot of work to do, and this virus is ahead of us every step of the way, we have been playing catch up from day one in this situation, so this is no time to relax.”

Governor Phil Murphy in New Jersey also said on Saturday that his state is “flattening the curve” as the growth in confirmed COVID-19 cases and rate of hospitalizations stabilizes.

Too many people, he said, still believe COVID-19 is “just the flu” and addressed them at the briefing.

“Surely we see flu outbreaks every year and yes, New Jerseyans die of the flu every year, but the flu has not caused the devastation that we are seeing,” he said. “This is a pandemic the likes of which we haven’t seen in a century.”

“If you’ve been keeping your eyes and your mind closed to the facts or science, please I beg you to open them, open them wide before you, God forbid, become one of the numbers I report here every day,” Murphy added.

Cuomo, Murphy and their Connecticut counterpart Ned Lamont, also announced on Sunday that marinas, boatyards and marine manufacturers can reopen for personal use as long as they apply strict social distancing and sanitization protocols. Restaurants in those areas are still required to only do take outs and deliveries.

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