Badly Hit by Coronavirus, French Jews Fear Worse News on Passover

Although specific numbers are not yet known, doctors believe the country’s Jews have been disproportionately hit by COVID-19. The rush to blame must be avoided, community leaders say

Shirli Sitbon.
Shirli Sitbon
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A elderly couple wearing protective masks waiting for a bus in Paris, March 16, 2020, as all non-essential public places were closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. However, local elections took place throughout France the previous day.
A elderly couple wearing protective masks waiting for a bus in Paris, March 16, 2020. Local elections had taken place throughout France the previous day. Credit: AFP
Shirli Sitbon.
Shirli Sitbon

PARIS – Annie Temset hasn’t left her apartment in two weeks. Unlike many in France, the 63-year-old Parisian took the coronavirus threat very seriously right from the start.

“I suffer from chronic bronchitis and asthma, I know getting out of the house is just too risky,” she tells Haaretz in a phone interview. “This epidemic is a tragedy. Several people from my own synagogue have died, several French rabbis too.”

Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troopsCredit: Haaretz

Our conversation is interrupted when her phone rings, with Temset suddenly becoming emotional. “My brother just told me a member of our synagogue has died from the coronavirus,” she explains after concluding the call.

Although she lives alone in northeastern Paris, the retired childminder says she doesn’t feel abandoned, because several Jewish associations and friends have rushed to help her, like other isolated members of the community.

“My friends and brother bring me food and Jewish students shop for me,” she says. “They put the bags right outside my apartment. And a young girl talks to me over the phone from time to time – she’s adorable. This year I’ll be all alone for Passover, but I’ll pray hard to God so he’ll end this epidemic.”

An aerial view shows the deserted Champs de Mars near the Eiffel Tower in Paris during a lockdown imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus in France, April 2, 2020. Credit: PASCAL ROSSIGNOL/REUTERS

The students who assist Temset and other isolated Jews belong to the Union of French Jewish Students, and are part of a solidarity “chain” created by several organizations.

“Whenever an association hears of a person who needs assistance, it passes on the information and whoever lives nearby chips in and helps,” says one of the student volunteers, Emma Doukhan.

“Helping out those in need is the initial goal of our association,” says Noémie Madar, president of the Jewish students’ group. “When the epidemic arrived here, we immediately organized a crisis group and decided to shop for those who are at risk, talk to them and also provide lessons for children who need help,” the 27-year-old recounts.

As they are part of the younger generation that is not in such a high-risk group as the elderly, students have been playing a special role in this crisis.

“Since we’re young we remember two things,” Madar says: “On the one hand, we have to be cautious because we can be a source of transmission for the virus. But we still need to help the older generations who are more vulnerable.”

The Purim factor

“It’s in this kind of crisis that community organizations rise up. On top of helping those who need food, psychiatrists also reach out to all those struggling with confinement, including families who live in small apartments where it’s difficult to remain indoors all the time,” says Francis Kalifat, the head of the French Jewish umbrella group Crif.

Francis Kalifat, head of the Crif umbrella body of Jewish organizations, arriving at the Ministry of Justice in Paris for a meeting, February 19, 2019.Credit: FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP

The goal of these operations is to limit the risks of new contamination – something France’s Jewish community has so far struggled to do. There is no official data about the number of affected Jews, but doctors say there’s a significant number among the infected: AMIF, the French association of Jewish doctors, says the number of sick Jews seems higher than their overall percentage in the French population. (There are about half a million Jews in France, less than 1 percent of the French population.) As of Sunday morning, 68,605 people currently have COVID-19 and there have been 7,560 deaths. It is a similar problem to the one affecting the Jewish community to the north in the United Kingdom.

Community leaders are among the casualties and victims. Joël Mergui, 62, head of the Paris institution that manages most synagogues, schools and kashrut food certification, has been hospitalized, along with his wife Dominique. (He’s now out of the intensive care unit and his wife has been released from hospital.) And Lubavitch rabbi Andre Touboul, who headed a prestigious Jewish high school in Paris, died from the disease last month at 64.

Joel Mergui inside the newly built European Center for Judaism, Paris, October 25, 2019. Mergui and his wife Dominique were both hospitalized due to COVID-19.Credit: JACQUES DEMARTHON / AFP

Physicians tell Haaretz there are several reasons for the problem. One is that many Jews live in some of the worst-affected areas, like Strasbourg and Paris. Another is that, like France’s national authorities, the Jewish community underestimated the threat initially and took risks, especially after the first cases were reported in earnest last month.

“The fact that the outbreak started around the time of Purim played a significant role,” says Dr. Bruno Halioua, head of the French Jewish doctors’ association. “Many synagogues maintained their parties and community celebrations, and a great number of infections are believed to have happened then,” he says.

Crif’s Kalifat defends the community’s actions during the holiday, which fell on March 9-11 this year, saying that “no one could imagine at that time how fast the virus would spread and how devastating it would be. Jewish organizations sent precautionary instructions pretty fast considering the circumstances.” His own organization had already postponed its annual dinner scheduled for March 4 in Paris.

“At the time it was authorized to hold gatherings, so communities who organized events did not break any rules,” says Ariel Goldman, head of the community’s social fund and educational body, the FSJU. “Still, other synagogues were more cautious and canceled their Purim celebrations,” he notes.

Mixed messages

Some in the community believe that mixed messages by religious leaders contributed to the problem. For example, despite the leaders stating that self-confinement rules should be followed to the letter, mikvehs remained open for most of March. France’s last ritual baths only shuttered on March 27, two weeks after schools closed and the country went into lockdown.

Medical staff taking care of a patient on a stretcher at the Henri Mondor hospital in Creteil, suburbs of Paris, April 3, 2020.Credit: AFP

In addition, Halioua says, “although synagogues were closed, some rabbis – like Paris’ Chief rabbi, Michel Gugenheim – authorized prayer groups as long as people kept 2 to 3 meters apart. That led people to hold secret minyans.

“Regarding mikvehs,” he continues, “we alerted Jewish institutions several times [last month] to shut them down. It’s only when we sent a new letter, co-signed by Dr. Richard Prasquier [a former head of Crif], that the community finally shut down the last mikvehs.”

Those community leaders argue in mitigation that their decisions were based on assessments of health authorities and government officials. The fact that the French government chose to conduct local elections across the country on March 15, declaring the process safe, seemingly led many to underestimate the scale of the crisis.

“Many people thought that if the French authorities believed it was safe to vote, then it was also safe to attend a Purim megillah reading,” Goldman says. France was not under lockdown and the number of people infected at the time was estimated at several hundred across the whole country.

Ariel Goldman delivering a speech in Paris in 2011.Credit: MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

Indeed, some doctors say they only fully understood the scale of the crisis when something happened a few thousand miles away: “When Israel said it was blocking entrance to French citizens, I realized how dangerous the epidemic was,” Halioua recounts, referring to the Israeli Health Ministry’s March 4 decision to place France and several other European countries on a travel ban list.

The controversy over the Jewish community’s approach has grown in the past week as the death toll has continued to mount, with some wondering if its initial lax attitude may lead to more people falling ill during this week’s Passover holiday.

“Are doctors concerned about what will happen after Passover? We’re terrified!” Halioua tells Haaretz. “So many things are still unknown about this disease. Will our health system hold or will it be completely overwhelmed by the crisis? And there are many ethical questions involved – over ventilators, for example, when doctors have to decide whether to take them off struggling patients.”

There has also been growing criticism of the French authorities for their management of the pandemic, mainly over the lack of masks (for medical staff) and ventilators. But many say any criticism should come once the outbreak is over. In the Jewish community, too, people this is not the time for criticism but to avert an even bigger death toll.

“The main goal now it to pass the message on about Passover. The chief rabbi and every Jewish leader is trying to pass on the message to everyone: Don’t celebrate with your family. Remain confined,” Goldman says.

“This Passover will be different for Jews across the world, here like in Israel,” Kalifat concurs. “It will be difficult, but we all have to abide by the rules so we can eradicate this disease. Next year, we’ll all celebrate Passover with our families and we’ll have other holidays until then – but we have to remain confined this year,” he says.

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