Texas has emerged as one of America’s biggest coronavirus hot spots in recent weeks, with the state’s Jewish residents prepared for the possibility of a return to lockdown.
“If, God forbid, we have to close down, then that’s what we’ll do,” Rabbi Levi Teldon, assistant rabbi and program director at San Antonio’s Chabad synagogue, which has reopened in limited capacity, told Haaretz on Tuesday. “Health is the most important thing,” says the 35-year-old.
The state reported record daily increases in confirmed coronavirus cases this past weekend, with 8,258 new cases on Saturday alone. As of Monday, Texas had an estimated 94,120 active cases, with Houston particularly badly hit.
For six straight days, Texas also registered a record high in the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19: 8,698 patients as of Monday afternoon. By comparison, New York state – the U.S. epicenter of the outbreak a few months ago – reported just 836 hospitalizations on Monday, far below the nearly 19,000 hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients at the peak of that state’s coronavirus crisis.
Teldon says his Chabad Center for Jewish Life & Learning in San Antonio closed right after Purim in mid-March, when the crisis began sweeping the United States. “No services, no classes, no kindergarten – everything in our center closed,” he recounts. “It was weird. It took a while to acclimate and realize that Judaism is not synagogue-based – it’s a home-based religion – and you could communicate and have a relationship with God everywhere, not just in the synagogue.”
Like many Jewish community leaders across the United States, Teldon and his wife, Rochel Teldon, had to get creative during the lockdown period. They organized challah deliveries for Shabbat and moved all classes to Zoom, including the kindergarten’s daily story time.
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As Texas began reopening in May, and after consulting with members of the congregation who work in the medical field as well as local authorities, the shul started holding services again, albeit in a reduced capacity. While the synagogue had some 120 attendees on a typical Shabbat before the pandemic began, services are currently held at only 25 percent capacity. “You have to wear a mask; there is no kissing the Torah – you do that with your eyes,” the rabbi explains.
The Chabad center also opened up its yearly summer day camp. Although there are temperature checks, daily signage sheets and no trips, kids who attend are still able to enjoy the campus pool and brand new playground.
Teldon says that even though they’re continuing to “uphold the highest standard” and clean the facilities multiple times a day, they will “shut it down in an instant” if the mayor or governor advises them to.
“This is a serious threat, and as Jewish people we take our health very seriously. We need to mask up, and not only survive but come out of this stronger and more connected, more inspired, more united,” he says. “God doesn’t need people to go to shul and die; he needs living people to do mitzvot and make the world a better place.”
Taking the longer view
On the island of Galveston, located just south of Houston, resident Jayson Levy says COVID-19 cases began rising again after the state-wide reopening in May. Galveston being a barrier island off the Gulf Coast and a coveted vacation spot, particularly for Houstonians, “There was a surge of tourists,” the 60-year-old recounts. “Among the young in particular, there was no social distancing, no masking or anything,” he says, “so Galveston had a spike.”
According to official data, after a record low of just one COVID-19 case on May 17, the number of people testing positive for the virus locally soared to 272 by July 2. Because of the high numbers, Galveston had already had to scale back and close beaches on the Fourth of July weekend, something Levy – who was born on the island – had never experienced before in his lifetime and describes as unreal.
“This is [normally] the high season,” he says. “Lots of restaurants have shut down and lots of businesses have shut down on the island, and there’s no doubt a significant number will not reopen.”
Although the island’s small Jewish community, primarily Reform, has gotten used to Zoom Shabbat services, Levy says no one would be particularly pleased to see a return to full lockdown.
“We wouldn’t want to, but as Jews we understand the sanctity of life and we’ll respect it in that spirit,” Levy says. “It’s unfortunate, but we’ll get through this. We’ve got a 5,000-year history: I think it helps us take the longer view, and we’re just going to have to work through this,” he adds.
‘People won’t tolerate a shutdown’
Rivkie Block, another Chabad emissary who lives in the Dallas suburb of Plano, is optimistic that Texas will not have another lockdown, despite the recent spike in cases.
“I don’t think people will tolerate a shutdown – Texans especially. No one tells Texans what to do!” she laughs. “I think [the authorities] will do everything short of that.”
However, Block, 52, believes that schools may be asked to go online in the fall as well, which would be very problematic for some parents in the Jewish community, she says.
“The day schools in our community are really struggling with this,” she notes. “If you’re paying $25,000 a year and your child has to sit in front of a computer and learn for half that time, you’re not getting your money’s worth – so the day schools are losing kids for that reason.”
Since the state’s reopening, Block’s Chabad center, like the one in San Antonio, has reopened its day camp for children. “It’s half the size it usually is, but when it started to spike in Dallas, no one [who has registered their children] pulled out,” she says. “The spike didn’t scare them.”
Just like in San Antonio, safety measures are also being taken: camp counselors and children wear masks; parents are told to stay out of the building; everyone is required to wash their hands regularly; and the facilities are sanitized every day. Block says she feels a responsibility to adhere strictly to health guidelines in her personal life too, because if she ends up getting infected with the virus, the camp will have to close.
“If I, God forbid, get it or my husband gets it, then we’re all in trouble – because the whole staff is living in my house at camp,” she relays. “So my husband and I, we’re taking a lot of precautions: we’re not traveling; we’re not going out to eat. We haven’t had a guest in our house basically since Purim,” she adds.
Texas isn’t the only state facing an alarming rise in numbers. During the first four days of July alone, 14 states posted a daily record increase in the number of individuals testing positive for COVID-19, which has already killed nearly 130,000 Americans.
The majority of Independence Day fireworks displays across the country were canceled, with state and local authorities urging Americans to avoid large crowds, practice social distancing and wear face coverings while out in public. But not everyone heeded those warnings. Video images posted on social media showed tightly packed crowds celebrating across the nation.
Since the number of COVID-19 cases has started spiking again in Texas, Levy says he feels a heightened sense of danger. “But my general impression is that there’s a deadly virus and then there’s a panic component,” he says. “What we’re experiencing is a combination of the two, and it’s hard for me to determine where that demarcation is – so you want to err on the side of caution.”
The city of Galveston has ordered people to wear masks in public, although Galveston County doesn’t have such an order in place. “We’re on the more conservative end in terms of health practice,” says Levy, who has a steel business considered essential on the island. “By and large, we see people comply. I think people realize it’s real at this point,” he adds.
Block, meanwhile, says she often finds herself thinking about the irony of living in such a sophisticated world, yet everyone being “held captive by something you can wash off with dish soap.” The panic component, she says, may be more real outside of her Jewish community in Texas, which she describes as something of a bubble.
“In Crown Heights in Brooklyn, where my mother and father live, they said that all night long you heard ambulances, the streets are empty, the shuls are closed, your neighbor was in the hospital on life support – so there, the panic was serious and it was a serious thing,” Block says. “Here, you’re living in the suburbs, the next Jewish person that I know lives down the block from me, so you’re not feeling the urgency of things.”
Even so, she’s definitely aware of a sea change in recent times. “Now in the state of Texas, everyone is wearing masks in the stores,” she says. “When I shop, I see that people are very mindful of space, even with the mask.”
Although the number of Jewish residents in San Antonio is estimated at about 10,000, Teldon believes the number is much higher. A U.S. census report from 2018 shows that San Antonio is enjoying a population boom in recent years, with a daily average of 66 new people moving to the city.
“If these numbers are true, there’s gotta be more Jews moving here that we don’t know about yet,” he says. Teldon says he feels “a little bit of a change” in residents’ attitudes recently in regards to the pandemic.
“I still see everyone wearing masks,” he reports. “H-E-B, which is the large grocery chain here in Texas – they have kosher aisles in Houston and San Antonio – had removed the mandatory mask regulation, but then they had to put it back up a week or two ago.” In general, he says, “people are getting the message that you can’t treat [the coronavirus] as if it’s gone away.”
However, there is one thing he is trying to allay: “Fear is a very powerful force, and while we’re totally cognizant and committed to keeping the utmost health, as an organization, as a shul, as parents, we have to make sure we don’t let the fear paralyze us,” Teldon says. “We try to have an optimistic and grounded balance, especially with our own kids, not to scare them.”