As Coronavirus Spreads in America, Synagogues Alert the Faithful

For now the challah might not be torn by hand and Purim celebrations might take a hit, though shuls are ‘trying to balance what is sacred with what is sane’

Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft
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FILE PHOTO: People attend a service at a synagogue in the U.S. As coronavirus spreads in America, synagogues alert their Jewish congregates
FILE PHOTO: People attend a service at a synagogue in the U.S. As coronavirus spreads in America, synagogues alert their Jewish congregates Credit: Vadim Ghirda,AP
Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft

At Shabbat services at Larchmont Temple in New York’s Westchester County this weekend – an area where 82 coronavirus cases have been reported – there was no holding hands, as is the congregation’s custom during the Jewish prayer for healing.

“We are holding our hearts instead of our hands,” said Leora Frankel, a rabbi at the large Reform synagogue.

And Sunday, she said, the synagogue would be taking the advice of the local health department to close and do a deep clean of the building – which means no Hebrew school and a delay of a Purim carnival for children.

For now, the plan is to reopen Monday and still celebrate Purim with the adults.

The synagogue, like synagogues across North America and around the world, is mulling how both to remain a source of community and comfort for its members, and be smart about how to handle the growing wave of coronavirus cases.

Leora Frankel, a rabbi at Larchmont Temple in New York’s Westchester County.
Leora Frankel, a rabbi at Larchmont Temple in New York’s Westchester County.Credit: Rhoda Levine

“We’re taking it day by day and in some cases hour by hour as the situation develops,” Frankel told Haaretz. “It’s this juggling act of wanting to remain a warm, supportive, nurturing environment and of course caring for every individual’s health, yet balancing that with the daily updates we’re getting from the county and school district.”

In short, she said, the synagogue is “trying to balance what is sacred with what is sane,” borrowing a term that Jeffrey J. Sirkman, the senior rabbi at her synagogue, has coined in the age of the coronavirus.

Next door to Larchmont is New Rochelle, the New York City suburb where a 50-year-old man tested positive for the coronavirus last week and is said to have potentially exposed hundreds of people. It’s the epicenter of the outbreak in New York State; most of the 82 cases in the county are there.

Young Israel of New Rochelle, the Orthodox synagogue where the man attended services before being diagnosed, has now been ordered shut by the Westchester County health commissioner. Those who attended a bat mitzvah and a funeral there on February 23 were told to self-quarantine at home. Among those who have tested positive is the synagogue’s rabbi, according to Yeshiva University.

The Jewish school the 50-year-old man’s daughter attends, SAR High School in the Bronx, also shut down for several days last week.

Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky of Congregation Beth Sholom, a Conservative synagogue in Teaneck, New Jersey, has a daughter who attends the school.

While she was home Thursday, he was in his office listening to recommendations from his county’s health department for rabbis and other faith leaders and drafting a letter to his congregants. He would be providing information on the illness and the synagogue’s efforts to keep its facilities clean, while advising those in high risk groups – older people and anyone with underlying health issues – to stay home.

“There is so much still unknown, and every hour there is another case reported, and yet again, most of these people are going to be fine,” he said. “But at the moment, at least, there is still great concern about containing it and preventing its spread.”

Pitkowsky, like his rabbinical and clerical colleagues, finds himself suddenly forced to navigate a global outbreak, and is trying to find the best way forward.

“We are under some pressure to cancel programs, but we don’t want to cancel them unless the science says we should cancel them, because we’re a community and people feel support from being together,” he said. “It’s complicated.”

Some things are changing. During kiddush, the blessing over the wine after Shabbat morning services and the light meal that follows, congregants are no longer allowed to handle the food; staff with gloves serve the food. And for now Pitkowsky will not be shaking hands with community members as he walks around the synagogue with the Torah during services and has advised congregants to avoid hugging and handshakes.

“It’s hard. People are very nervous and we want to make sure we’re being as safe as we can be and protecting our members, especially those in vulnerable populations,” he said. “Yet at this time we’re not being asked to cancel our regular programming or cancel Purim or the megillah reading Monday night” – the reciting of the Purim story.

Fist pumps and elbow bumps

In the Boston suburb of Brookline, Rabbi Andrew Vogel of Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue, said the congregation’s doors would remain open as long as the town or state doesn’t tell it to cancel services and other programming.

Rabbi Andrew Vogel of Temple Sinai in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Rabbi Andrew Vogel of Temple Sinai in Brookline, Massachusetts.Credit: Jason Grow

“I don’t want to be an instrument of deeper panic,” Vogel said, adding that if it came to that, some general plans are in place, including video services. “But we aren’t at that place right now. It’s very hypothetical.”

In the meantime, the focus is on commonsense prevention: the challah served after Shabbat services will be cut with a knife, not torn by hand. Also, utensils are to be used for taking food from the table of a planned Purim dinner, and a napkin should be used when reaching for a cookie.

“One of the features of American synagogues is that people do hug and kiss to wish each other a Shabbat Shalom,” Vogel said. “We’re focusing instead on fist pumps and elbow bumps and bowing to each other.”

In American synagogues, the focus is on being a community, he said.

“We are places of loving-kindness and care no matter what kind of health crisis is going on, and we’re empathizing as places of care and connection,” he said.

“If people are in quarantine we want to deliver soup and food …. Yes, there are health precautions we want to take and our core value is hesed – loving-kindness and caring for each other and making sure the virus does not spread and making sure we are supporting each other.”

Some good medieval advice

In a letter to his synagogue members, Vogel quoted from Isaiah 41:10: “Have no fear, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with the power of My righteousness.”

He added: “May we all find strength, health and blessing – and cover our coughs!”

In the letter he sent to Larchmont Temple congregants, Sirkman, the senior rabbi, also invoked ancient wisdom, citing Moses Maimonides quoting the Torah. The Rambam urged his 12th-century contemporaries: “It is a commandment to remove any obstacle that could pose a danger to life, and to take every precaution in regards to your health, as Torah teaches: ‘Take utmost care of yourself and protect yourself conscientiously.” (Deuteronomy 4:9)

The outbreak comes at an especially tumultuous era in America’s political life and at a time when anti-Semitic acts have increased, adding to the stress. Pitkowsky noted that this past Shabbat the Torah reading was about the Amalek, the people described as the enemy of the Israelites in the Bible.

“It’s an interesting time to have that reading … which calls on us never to forget what they did to the Israelites,” he said. “The question is what do we do with that message today?”

He mused that perhaps it can be remembered “as a way to remember we are all human, that diseases don’t respect boundaries and borders. That the only way to fight this and survive is to come together.”

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