Coronavirus Crisis: How Quarantine Is Helping to Bring America’s Jewish Communities Together

From Purim parties to Torah studies, self-isolating U.S. Jews are finding respite online and receiving help from far and wide

A padlock and chain are fixed to a gate leading to New Rochelle High School that is closed due to COVID-19 concerns, Friday, March 13, 2020, in New Rochelle, N.Y. State officials have set up a "containment area" in the New York City suburb, where schools and houses of worship are closed within a 1-mile radius of a point near a synagogue where an infected person with coronavirus had attended events. State officials stress it is not a lockdown. The vast majority of people recover from the new coronavirus. According to the World Health Organization, most people recover in about two to six weeks, depending on the severity of the illness.  (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
John Minchillo,AP

A day before his coronavirus self-quarantine ends, Stanley Raskas feels grateful.

Over the past two weeks, the 71-year-old resident of New Rochelle says he has been able to spend quality time with his wife, reconnect with old friends in different places, and even see his grandkids in their Purim costumes via video chat apps.

“I’m OK, but the people who are terribly affected are all the people who have sick relatives” Raskas says. “There has been incredible chesed [acts of kindness] both within this community and outside this community,” he adds.

New Rochelle, a New York City suburb and home to a large Jewish community, found itself at the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis at the beginning of March, after a local resident became the second person in New York state to be diagnosed with COVID-19.

Some cases have been traced to the Young Israel Synagogue of New Rochelle, where the man, an attorney, attended services last month.

Authorities established a containment zone around the shul, with most of the Jewish community forced into self-quarantine in their homes. Public spaces, schools and institutions are to remain closed until further notice.

Despite the difficult circumstances, Raskas told Haaretz over the weekend by phone that he and his neighbors have received an outpouring of support over the past few weeks.

“Anybody who is not quarantined, they’ve gone on a list and they will run errands, they will do things for everybody,” he says. “We have also set up a WhatsApp group with different kosher facilities, restaurants and our local supermarket: They will delivery anything and you can put orders in, even though some of those places might be in Riverdale, Queens.”

Among the acts of kindness, people from other parts of New York had kosher Chinese food delivered to all those in quarantine around the Young Israel of New Rochelle shul. And a synagogue in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, sent Purim packages for all the families with children in quarantine. Meanwhile, the Young Israel synagogue itself is conducting Torah studies online

“I get emotional when I talk about it, they were so terrific,” says Raskas, holding back tears. The outpouring of support has been heartwarming, he adds, but the community is also committed to doing whatever is necessary to help health officials contain the spread of the virus.

The self-quarantine order has been especially difficult for families with young children, he notes, as well as the many Jews in the area who are used to attending daily prayers.

“We’re willing to make whatever sacrifices [are needed] to protect people here,” Raskas says. “We pray refuah shlema [full recovery] for those who are sick, but this is a wonderful community that abides by everything and stands for each other.

Sylvia Hamer packs free groceries for distribution to the elderly at Hope Community Services, Friday, March 13, 2020, in New Rochelle, N.Y. State officials have set up a "containment area" in the New York City suburb
John Minchillo,AP

“We are proud of what we’re doing, and we’re thankful and proud of all those people outside of our community who have chipped in,” he adds.

Zooming in

Modern technology has undoubtedly made those days in quarantine easier for those affected. Raskas’ synagogue, for example, was able to hold events online via video chat apps like Zoom.

“The tools are helping keep everybody connected and allowing us to still feel like a community, even though we might be in our own houses,” he says. “If this had happened 25 years ago, it would have been a different story.”

Such technology is becoming increasingly essential in dealing with the self-isolation, as more and more Americans have begun working from home and been instructed to practice social distancing.

Vered Merzer-Sapir, regional director of the Israeli American Council’s Seattle chapter, tells Haaretz her organization is relying heavily on technology to continue working.

“We’re a community-building organization, and the idea of community-building is based on meetings and events,” she says. “We had four Purim events planned last weekend. One after the other, all of them were canceled.”

Joy Malone holds her daughter's hand as she is tested by a worker in protective clothing during drive through coronavirus testing in New Rochelle, New York, U.S., March 13, 2020.
JOY MALONE/ REUTERS

Merzer-Sapir felt she had to find a way to preserve the holiday spirit despite the difficult circumstances, so decided to hold a Purim party online via the Zoom video app.

“It was spontaneous but so much fun,” she recounts. “People tuned in – a few dozen families who were sitting in their living rooms with their kids in costumes. Me and another woman … dressed up and decorated the room, to create a bit of an atmosphere. We put some Purim music on and played some games.”

The online party lasted almost 90 minutes and included a costume contest, with participants showing off their attire through their camera and everybody voting via the chat feature.

“It felt right, it felt good,” Merzer-Sapir says.

Life in the Seattle area has changed drastically for residents in the past two weeks, she admits. Her children’s schools are shuttered and will not be reopening until April 24 (at the earliest), for example.

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States, and first confirmed death, occurred in Washington state at the end of February. As of Sunday morning, the state has seen 40 deaths – more than anywhere else in the country.

A patient arrives to be tested for the coronavirus at Glen Island Park, Friday, March 13, 2020, in New Rochelle, N.Y.  State officials have set up a “containment area” in the New York City suburb, where schools and houses of worship are closed within a 1-mile radius of a point near a synagogue where an infected person with coronavirus had attended events. State officials stress it is not a lockdown. The vast majority of people recover from the new coronavirus. According to the World  Health Organization, most people recover in about two to six weeks, depending on the severity of the illness.  (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
John Minchillo,AP

Workplaces such as Microsoft and Amazon, two of the biggest employers in the greater Seattle area, have instructed employees to work from home, while social distancing guidelines have been issued.

“Preparations are happening on the spot, so spontaneity has worked well here,” Merzer-Sapir says. “The unknown has touched every aspect of our lives now – from how to spend the day at home, to everything else.”

The current crisis has also forced Merzer-Sapir and her team to find creative ideas to keep the Israeli American Council’s activities going.

They are “starting to offer things online and in different formats to continue our usual programming, but also to give people the sense that the community doesn’t stop because we’re at home,” she explains.

“Our community is very tight-knit and supportive all year round,” she says. “There are so many groups on Facebook and WhatsApp that are talking all the time, but I don’t know what’s going to happen – it’s an exercise in learning something new everyday.”

The Israeli American Council has chapters all over the country, and Merzer-Sapir says the current crisis has highlighted “the real strength of being a coast-to-coast organization. Because if we are doing everything online, there’s no reason for people in Seattle not to tune into a lecture in Philadelphia.

“Everything can be seen as an opportunity and we have to keep positive,” she concludes.

Operation ‘Adopt a Student’

As restrictions increase across the country, some universities have suspended classes for the time being.

Maor Farid, an Israeli postdoctoral researcher at MIT in the Boston area, tells Haaretz that since the coronavirus outbreak began, students at universities in the area started receiving countless emails about hygiene.

“The frequency of these emails started growing. And then suddenly we heard that Harvard closed the campus, and we got emails that we can’t hold meetings or seminars,” he says. “Then we got an email that after spring break next week, students can’t come back to campus and all lectures will happen remotely.

“In addition, undergrad students, who are kids, were told to evacuate the dorms immediately,” he adds. That shook students whose family homes are far from campus dorms. And while American students may have an easier time making arrangements, for overseas students, including many Israelis, the last-minute instructions were stress-inducing.

In light of this, Farid and his wife decided to launch an operation they called “Adopt a Student” – asking for people in the area to host Israeli students.

“I posted it on three Facebook groups and – I am not exaggerating – within less than two hours, over 150 families in the Jewish and Israeli community had mobilized,” he tells Haaretz.

Volunteers are now providing students with housing, storage or simply Shabbat meals. Only a few days after starting the initiative, Farid says every Israeli student in need currently has a solution and a place to go.

“It’s the Israeli and Jewish response to the coronavirus, that’s how I see it,” he says. “The average person can’t solve this quickly, so let’s open our hearts and our homes – we know how” to do that.

Farid, who heads a group on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus dedicated to showcasing Israeli high-tech and providing support for Israeli students, was deeply touched by the overwhelming response of people wanting to help.

“It’s not something to be taken for granted – even though I expected it,” he says.