As Coronavirus Spreads in N.Y., These U.S. Jewish Communities Pray They're Not Next

Chicago, Boston, Miami and Washington have been identified as potential COVID-19 hot spots. All are hoping they can avoid the fate of New York’s Orthodox community

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Medical personnel waiting to screen people arriving at a special COVID-19 testing site in Boston, March 28, 2020.
Medical personnel waiting to screen people arriving at a special COVID-19 testing site in Boston, March 28, 2020.Credit: Michael Dwyer/AP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – In the weeks since the coronavirus epidemic exploded in the United States, no American-Jewish community has been hit as hard as New York’s. Unofficial estimates point to dozens of deaths in the Jewish community there and in neighboring New Jersey, specifically in areas affiliated with ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Other American-Jewish communities are watching the catastrophe unfolding in New York with concern, as the virus spreads across the country. There have already been more than 160,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, with cases diagnosed in all 50 states. Apart from New York, the most alarming hot spots seem to be New Orleans and Detroit, but no large metropolitan area is immune.

So far, no Jewish community other than New York has suffered a high number of losses. But representatives of Jewish organizations in four large cities experiencing a rapid growth in confirmed coronavirus cases all told Haaretz this week that their communities are preparing for a lengthy and painful situation – one that will hurt the community on multiple fronts: from loss of life to the shuttering of organizations due to financial strains.

Some two weeks ago, the New York Times reported on a “huge spike” in coronavirus cases in New York’s ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) neighborhoods. At the moment, there are no indications of a similar trend in other Jewish communities, according to the head of a national Jewish organization that is monitoring the issue and who asked not to be identified.

“We’re praying there won’t be another New York situation in any other communities – and so far we’re not seeing any signs of such a situation developing somewhere else,” the official says. “But even without reaching that level of catastrophe in other parts of the country, we know it’s going to be a very difficult period for Jewish communities everywhere.”

The other looming crisis

Over the weekend, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams identified Chicago as a potential hot spot for the virus, placing the country’s third largest city in a similar risk group to Detroit and New Orleans. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker subsequently published an order for citizens to stay at home unless they need to go out for essential purposes. And the city’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, estimated that as many as 40,000 residents could be hospitalized because of COVID-19 within the coming weeks.

Chicago and its surrounding metropolitan area is home to approximately 300,000 Jews. It is one of America’s largest Jewish communities, “but has the feel of a small community where everybody knows each other,” says Jim Rosenberg, chief of staff at the Jewish United Fund of Chicago. Rosenberg has worked in the city’s Jewish community for two decades and tells Haaretz that while there have been several crisis points over the years, he has “never seen anything like this.”

Rosenberg highlights several challenges the community and Jewish organizations are dealing with, all at the same time: “We don’t want to have a situation where parts of the Jewish community get hit very hard, like in New York,” he says. “So far we haven’t seen anything like that over here.”

A traffic message board displaying a message about coronavirus prevention on I-94 southbound in Chicago, March 28, 2020.Credit: Nam Y. Huh/AP

He says that special attention should be given to Jewish nursing homes for the elderly, since elderly living compounds have become “hot spots” for the virus around the world.

“We’re seeing volunteers who are helping people in the community – older people who don’t feel safe to get out to the grocery store and need help with that, or people who are sick or quarantined and need similar help,” he says. “We’re working closely with the rabbis and synagogue leaders because they have the best understanding of the situation on the ground, what people are actually going through, what kind of help they need right now.”

Rosenberg warns, however, of another, perhaps even larger, crisis looming in the background that must be also addressed now: the economic impact of the epidemic.

“We need to ask ourselves how to maintain a community and how to make sure we get out of this together – because the financial strain this is already creating for Jewish communities is a big problem,” he says.

That hardship, Rosenberg notes, is being felt at Jewish nonprofits, synagogues, national and local organizations, and also private businesses that serve the Jewish community such as kosher catering services and supermarkets.

“People who planned making a gift to a synagogue are holding back; people who planned to hold a wedding or a bat mitzvah and order food have to cancel; and people who wanted to invest in a new program are waiting to see what will happen,” he relays.

All of this is happening, he says, “at the same time as when you need more resources for Jewish communities – more social services, food for people who are isolated and lonely, support for families that lose their loved ones. We’re also preparing for a very unusual Passover next week. So you have a situation where, on the one hand, Jewish organizations have to do a lot. But at the same time, resources are becoming a challenge.”

During the 2008-2009 financial crisis, Rosenberg says that organizations also lost donations. But “you didn’t have to cancel events and programming, and that makes a big difference. What is a Jewish community, at the end of the day?” he asks. “We’re in the people business. If we can’t bring people together, then we’re out of business. Luckily, today we have technological solutions and we’re seeing amazing things happening in Jewish day schools that are adopting e-learning, and in synagogues that are doing programming via [the video chat app] Zoom. But all of that doesn’t help the local Jewish caterer or the Judaica store.”

A man walking on a deserted street in downtown Miami, March 27, 2020.Credit: AFP

Rosenberg adds that the Jewish United Fund has so far provided $1 million to help with cash flow in local Jewish day schools and other Jewish institutions.

‘Long-term problems’

Boston was one of the first U.S. cities to experience a large coronavirus outbreak related to a single event – a conference in late February by the biotech firm Biogen that left some 100 people infected. The city’s mayor, Marty Walsh, said last week he was not ruling out a complete lockdown for the city if the spread of the virus won’t slow down soon.

“The city has been almost completely shut down for two weeks now, and the same goes for the Jewish institutions,” says Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. “Synagogues are doing a lot of online activities, and some Reform and Conservative synagogues are also broadcasting Shabbat services in which you basically have only the rabbi and the cantor inside the sanctuary, but everyone can watch from home and join the prayer.”

Local Jewish family services are “working extremely hard,” he says. “With people everywhere losing their jobs, losing family members, feeling anxious and lonely – this is obviously also happening in our community.” He says an emergency fund for dealing with the immediate human impact of the crisis has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, with a specific focus on helping elderly members of the community.

“We are not New York, not on a citywide level and not on a Jewish community level. But we are feeling the impact of this everywhere,” Burton says.

“There are immediate problems, like helping people do a Passover seder next week in a reality where you have so many people – from students staying in town instead of going to their families, to older people – who can’t go out, and so there’s a whole project of delivering seder materials.

“But then you have to also think about long-term problems. We know, based on past experience, that fundraising is going to be a problem.” He warns that “almost every Jewish institution is going to be struggling with this. Rabbis for the most part aren’t thinking about it: They are focused on the crisis itself – funerals, shivahs, weddings getting canceled, bar and bat mitzvah events that won’t take place, helping members of the community that are in need. It’s hard to think about the challenges of next year when we’re dealing every day with the challenge of the moment.”

Burton, who grew up in an Orthodox family in New York, says he is “heartbroken” by the news emerging about the city’s Orthodox community. He praises Boston’s Orthodox rabbis, who “came together two weeks ago and put out a public letter shutting down all the synagogues. This action probably saved lives.”

‘Too soft’

A woman walking past signage stating the closure of a cafe in Miami Beach, Florida, March 26, 2020. Credit: AFP

Over the weekend, pictures of people in Florida flocking to the state’s beaches made national headlines, accompanied by warnings that this kind of behavior shows that many Americans aren’t adhering to the calls to stay home and practice social distancing. Miami has also been identified by experts as a potential coronavirus hot spot, and is already seeing more and more cases by the day (the county had 1,701 coronavirus cases as of late Monday).

“We hear in the news that we are one of the cities with the largest number of cases, but unfortunately it seems that a lot of people aren’t hurrying to change their plans,” says Orit Feigelman, an Israeli who has lived in Miami for three decades. The city is home to a large Israeli expat community estimated to be in the tens of thousands.

Feigelman is involved in The Riviera Parliament, a group of hundreds of Israeli families in the Miami area that holds weekly programs, lectures and gatherings. She leads the women’s group and says the coronavirus has forced them to change all their plans in recent weeks.

“Some events we had to cancel, and others we managed to conduct via Zoom and other technologies,” she explains. “We stopped doing gatherings more than three weeks ago, and over time the entire Jewish community entered the same situation. Schools are closed, synagogues are closed, the JCC is shut down. There is nothing happening on an organized level – people are encouraged to stay home and wait until this will pass. And yes, we realize it could take many weeks, even months.”

Feigelman is worried, though, by the broader public attitude, exemplified by those well-documented beach parties this weekend. “As an Israeli, I’m reading about the steps the government is taking in Israel, like using the Shin Bet security service to track the movements of people who could be carriers of the virus. I understand the people warning that it’s like a dictatorship, but it could help keep people alive. I think the authorities here are being too soft on this issue.”

She continues: “If you asked me to sum up the situation here in one sentence, I would say it feels like the calm before the storm. The weather is wonderful, and that’s why people are going out to the beaches. But you hear about more and more people who are getting sick. I know several friends who have either tested positive or have symptoms and are afraid. A leading Chabad rabbi in our area, Rabbi [Sholom D.] Lipskar, tested positive. It’s very sad.”

‘Shameful moment’

A cyclist wearing a mask passes a stop sign in Mount Rainier, Maryland, near Washington, March 30, 2020.Credit: AFP

The area around Washington, D.C. – which includes not just the U.S. capital but also the states of Virginia and Maryland – is also at risk, with a growing number of cases and deaths over the past week. On Monday, the governors of both Maryland and Virginia announced a “stay at home” order for residents. Last week, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser sent a text message to all D.C. residents, urging them to do the same.

Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Center of Greater Washington, tells Haaretz that “life in the Jewish community has shifted significantly. The Jewish Federation did an emergency fund to help people in need, and there is an effort to connect agencies and organizations to federal and state-level grant sources.” He praises Bowser for her “leadership during the crisis,” specifically for being attuned to the needs of the area’s Jewish community, which numbers some 300,000.

Halber also says that the legislation approved by Congress last week to help small businesses and community organizations “will help the Jewish community survive the next few months. It buys some time, but there will still be very painful decisions for Jewish communities all over the country. One of the important things about this legislation is that one of the conditions for receiving aid is keeping people employed, and that means once the crisis is over – and hopefully it will be over soon – you can go back to programming and restarting things that have been shut down at the moment.”

Regarding the broader national crisis, Halber says “it’s unbelievable that we’re watching the most economically powerful country in the world fail to produce masks and gloves for its doctors and nurses. They are in the front lines, here in Washington and all over the country, and it’s shocking to see the conditions they are asked to work under. It’s a shameful moment for our country.”

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