Synagogues Closed, Group Prayer Cancelled: New Jersey Orthodox Rabbinical Council Responds to Coronavirus

The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of Bergen County also asked that members of the community refrain from making condolence calls and stay home 'as much as possible'

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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An Orthodox Jew rides an escalator at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, U.S., January 1, 2020.
An Orthodox Jew rides an escalator at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, U.S., January 1, 2020.Credit: JEENAH MOON/ REUTERS
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

NEW YORK – All Orthodox synagogues in Bergen County, New Jersey have closed and congregants in the area have been urged to avoid public gatherings, including those on Shabbat, in light of the coronavirus outbreak.

As of Thursday, state authorities reported 29 cases in New Jersey, including 13 in Bergen County, home to a large Jewish population. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, there were 217 in nearby New York state.

The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which represents more than 30 Orthodox synagogues, issued a letter to community members on Wednesday describing social distancing practices that should be followed to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

In a major break from usual Orthodox Jewish practice, the council asked that members of the community “daven [pray] at home individually” and not hold group prayer minyans. They were also asked to refrain from holding public celebrations or Shabbat meals, to refrain from making condolence calls and urged to stay home “as much as possible” and to restrict funerals to a small group of family members.

In addition, kosher restaurants in Bergen County are only to serve customers food that is picked up or delivered.

“It is with a very heavy heart that we are suspending so many of the most crucial routines of our daily lives and lifecycle moments,” the letter to community members stated. “These measures are adopted as a reflection of our overarching commitment to the sanctity of all human life, and we pray that these will be very temporary measures.”

The decision was not taken lightly, said Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz, the president of the rabbinical council of Bergen County. "However synagogues, as centers for larger gatherings, must take the lead on social distancing,” he added. “We have one goal, to slow the spread of the virus and to save lives.”

“Preserving life is a paramount value in Judaism and that value is our guide at this point,” he stated.

A Modern Orthodox resident of the Bergen County township of Teaneck, who asked not to be identified by name, told Haaretz on Thursday that getting used to the new rules is “going to be tough.”

Jewish restaurants advertising kosher food in the center of Teaneck township , Friday, March 23, 2018.Credit: Natan Dvir

“Our children are out of school now so it makes it difficult to go to work,” the resident, who grew up in the area, said. “There are real impacts here from it, but overall, I think it was a very bold decision by the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, and I hope others follow.”

“This is going to be the first long Shabbat of the year and we can’t take the kids to groups. We can’t go to shul [synagogue], we can’t [arrange] a playdate,” he said. “All these usual things we do, we just can’t do anymore.”

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