Congregation Zero: The First Synagogue in America That Got Hit With COVID

In March 2020, a small New York suburb found the National Guard on its streets and its name splashed across the media. Three members of the community recall a year like no other

A COVID-19 testing site in New Rochelle, New York.
A COVID-19 testing site in New Rochelle, New York. Credit: Gili Getz
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

On the morning of March 3, 2020, Tamar Weinberg had just waved goodbye to her children on their school bus in New Rochelle, New York, when she received a text message informing her that school was closed and the students would be sent home.

“I said to myself, ‘Are you kidding me?’” she told Haaretz this week, a year since her small suburb suddenly became headline news.

Shortly after, Weinberg found out someone in her community had tested positive for the coronavirus. “And then we were stuck at home,” she said.

Located about a 40-minute drive north of New York City, New Rochelle is home to a large Jewish community. Last March, it became the first American epicenter of the coronavirus after a Jewish attorney who lives in the town, Lawrence Garbuz, became the second person in New York state to be diagnosed with COVID-19.

Some cases had been traced to the Young Israel Synagogue of New Rochelle, where Garbuz attended services. Almost immediately afterward, authorities took the highly unusual move of establishing a containment zone around the shul, sending in the National Guard and putting the local community under lockdown.

Tamar Weinberg outside her home in New Rochelle. The lockdown actually proved a great way for her to meet other local residents. Credit: Gili Getz

“I didn’t think it was COVID at that point at all, I thought I was getting the flu,” said B., a Jewish resident of New Rochelle who was among the community’s first COVID patients.

B., who is in his 50s and prefers to remain anonymous, recounted how he began feeling lethargic and “wiped out.” By March 4, the first New Rochelle case had been publicized, and he realized he had likely been infected by the coronavirus. A test administered in his home confirmed it.

Just a few days later, B.’s condition suddenly deteriorated. “My wife found me in the bathroom, unresponsive,” he told Haaretz, adding he had not felt his breathing deteriorating prior to this, possibly due to a COVID complication called silent hypoxia.

That day, he became the first COVID patient in the intensive care unit of the hospital to which he was taken, and remained ventilated in a medically-induced coma for over a month. “I was completely unconscious and unaware,” B. said. “It was a difficult time, to say the least, and we were in the thick of it.”

B. is also diabetic, which increased the risk of severe complications. While in hospital, he experienced kidney failure and a drop in blood pressure. “I was very lucky that I didn’t lose any limbs to it,” he said. He expressed surprise that he survived at all: “It’s a tremendous miracle, to be perfectly honest.”

After his release from the ICU, B. was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital in Westchester, New York, for another month. He had extensive damage to his feet and is still recuperating. A year later, he still suffers from some nerve damage, mainly in his left arm. “At different points of the day, I have milder or heavier pins and needles,” he said. “I have mobility, but not 100 percent.”

A man walking along the sidewalk in New Rochelle, New York.Credit: Gili Getz

Seizing the initiative

Originally from Florida, Weinberg, 40, moved to New Rochelle in 2012 and is the mother of four children between the ages of 4 and 11. When she first arrived in the New York suburb, she struggled socially.

“Most of the people in this community are all related to each other,” she said. “When you go to shul, everybody kind of congregates to their social crowds.”

Ironically, the coronavirus crisis, was the beginning of Weinberg’s social life in New Rochelle.

A few days into lockdown, with heightened media attention on her community, Weinberg decided to seize the initiative. She started talking to kosher restaurants about getting meals delivered to people in quarantine. The options in New Rochelle are limited and with people not being allowed to leave, many were interested in ordering food. The goal, Weinberg said, was “to support the restaurants themselves but also to support each other.”

Weinberg coordinated the meal deliveries, taking people’s orders and communicating with restaurants. The meals would then arrive at her house to be picked up.

“I would sit outside with the food until everybody came,” she recalled. “To have someone come to my driveway, give them a smile and hand them their food was a way of meeting the community.”

The entrance to the Young Israel of New Rochelle synagogue.Credit: Gili Getz
A sign at the Young Israel of New Rochelle synagogue asking people to adhere to coronavirus requirements.Credit: Gili Getz

Weinberg also helped coordinate produce orders and donations to local charities. She continues to place kosher food deliveries in New Rochelle at least twice a week for people who request them. So far, she has coordinated at least 150 such deliveries. “It’s the most social I get to be,” she said.

“I finally found myself in this community and finally felt like I belonged in this community,” she added. “I’m very happy to be here and I’m happy to be able to provide for members of the community, for restaurants themselves and to unite people with something that clearly helps.”

Since the pandemic hit New Rochelle, the local Jewish community has pulled together in different ways: neighbors began running errands for each other, the local synagogue moved its activities online and other shuls sent Purim packages for families with children in quarantine.

Despite the pain it has inflicted, COVID “has also brought a lot of people together,” Weinberg said.

“I think we were a special community before this happened, and now I think we’re even more special,” Stanley Raskas, 72, who once served as president of the Young Israel shul, said on the phone from Miami – his first vacation since the crisis began.

A restaurant in New Rochelle. Tamar Weinberg liaised with kosher restaurants about getting meals delivered to those in quarantine.Credit: Gili Getz

About a week before the March 2020 lockdown, Raskas’ family held a Yahrzeit [Jewish memorial] for a family member who passed away some years ago. At that point, with COVID-19 barely a blip on the news, some 120 people showed up. This year, they held the event on Zoom. “The fear is still great,” Raskas said. “That’s still our life and no one wants to take chances.”

He expressed pride in his community and its leadership over its attention and care for its members, calling them “exemplary.”

New perspective

When he finally came home from the hospitals last May, B. sat on his front porch and watched his friends, family and community members parade in their cars past his house. They waved, cheered and held up posters welcoming him home.

“It was a personal win, but the community needed a win,” he said.

Despite the lingering medical issues, doctors are optimistic that he will make a full recovery – but “no one knows how long it takes.”

B. said that recovery has its own emotional challenges. “It’s hard when you see all these folks who have been passing away. You look around and you have survivor’s guilt almost – why did I get through it and this guy didn’t get through?”

But coming so close to death, he said, has given him a new perspective on life. “You appreciate everything that you have, only 10 times more,” he said. “It’s really just a reminder of everything you knew beforehand, but sometimes you overlook it or don’t focus on it because you don’t have to, and you’re just caught up in your life.

“I don’t think it’s normal every day and every moment after the event to look at life through that lens, because that’s not natural either,” he said. “It’s just a natural process: You try to talk a little differently, do things a little differently, be a little more relaxed and not rushed, and have that extra moment and say that extra thing, be a lot more thoughtful.”

Raskas got his second dose of the vaccine three weeks ago. When reflecting on the past year, his first thoughts go to “the few individuals with connections to our community who did not survive, and what a terrible tragedy it was for those families.

“I think of the individuals who were very sick that managed still to survive,” he said. “But most of all, I think of how, in our shul and in many Jewish communities, people really observed the rules, cared for each other. And I think of all of us as grandparents who couldn’t even see grandchildren, or if we did it was outside under extreme conditions.”

He added, “I’m thankful to the leaders of our community who did everything possible to make life bearable in an unbearable situation.”