Covid in Tenafly
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Covid in Tenafly

Rumors about its origin spark disquieting memories

Mark Zinna is the mayor of Tenafly. (Courtesy Mark Zinna)
Mark Zinna is the mayor of Tenafly. (Courtesy Mark Zinna)

In the wake of the continuing protests in some New York City neighborhoods with high concentrations of charedi Jews and a serious spike in covid-19 cases, which has raised fears of increased anti-Semitism in the city, residents of Tenafly — both Jews and non-Jews — are expressing similar concerns about their borough. The concerns stem from rumors that a recent uptick in covid-19 cases there were sparked by an event at Chabad of Tenafly on the first days of Sukkot.

Governor Phil Murphy expressed a similar concern on the statewide level on September 25, after covid-19 cases began to spike in some New Jersey counties with heavy Jewish populations. “I don’t want anybody, I don’t want a speck of anybody in this state saying, ‘Hey, see, it’s because of them’ or whatever,” Mr. Murphy said, adding, “I want everybody to leave any prejudices or biases. Check them at the door.”

Tenafly experienced an anti-Semitic backlash nearly 20 years ago over the placement of an eruv — the barrier that establishes the halachic boundaries that allow observant Jews to carry things on Shabbat and holidays — and the concern is that the recent increase in covid-19 cases in the borough, and the actions taken by officials to stem the tide, may result in a similar backlash this time.

The outbreak first was reported in a telephone message from Mayor Mark Zinna to Tenafly residents on October 8. The borough’s actions, Mr. Zinna said then, were taken as “a result of individuals attending an organized event, and were reportedly not practicing safe social distancing and not wearing masks. These cases include both adults and children.” Those actions included closing the middle school, suspending youth recreational programs, and canceling the borough’s annual Fall Festival, which was scheduled for October 10.

Cases have continued to rise in Tenafly ever since. The rumors about the Chabad event being the catalyst seem to be spreading almost as fast as covid-19.

According to one concerned resident, Mary Arguello, “I had heard from neighbors that it was a gathering of Israeli people invited to the Chabad house. They’re Israelis and not participants at Chabad House, but they know a lot of other Jewish people in town who were celebrating the holidays [there], so they went there, as well.”

One conversation in particular concerned her most, she said. She heard through friends “that the person who came out and said that their child was positive or that they were positive…, they had death threats or something, and I’m thinking that’s insane. Now, I don’t know if that was anti-Semitic death threats, but they were [threats]. What we don’t want happening is people being afraid to communicate that they have a positive case, because that’s just going to undermine the whole process of trying to protect yourself if people aren’t comfortable to say so.”

After hearing the comments and listening to a podcast she found on Facebook, “It’s not like everybody’s talking about it,” but “it kind of got it into my head that that is something that Jews have to be particularly careful about,” Ms. Arguello said.

According to Mr. Zinna, Tenafly was being proactive in trying to avoid a backlash of any kind. “Among the methods I employ to reduce tensions is to communicate weekly — sometimes more frequently — with the entire town via a reverse-911 call from the mayor with an update on current events, including covid-related issues,” Mr. Zinna wrote in an email response to questions from the Jewish Standard. “I also distribute this message via email, text and multiple Facebook pages.

“I also communicate directly with the leaders of our Houses of Worship to offer advice, information and to better understand their various situations. We also have an understanding with the Police Department that if a House of Worship is discovered to be experiencing an absence of social distancing, mask wearing or is too crowded, I personally contact the leadership of the House of Worship to diffuse the situation.”

Mr. Zinna would not identify the original source of the outbreak, saying that, as a matter of policy, township officials “do not identify the individuals or specific origins of a cluster outbreak.” He did acknowledge, however, that “members of the community often self-identify, which can lead to hostility among residents.”

In an earlier interview on October 12, after the Chabad rumors began to circulate, Mr. Zinna said, “I have a very good relationship with Rabbi [Mordechai] Shain. We talk all the time. I’ve been over there, touring the shul and watching the events in general…; we speak all the time.”

The mayor acknowledged that “he and I have spoken several times” since the outbreak in the middle school, and he complimented Chabad for canceling activities planned for Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. “From what I’m being told, there were only about 15 individuals who attended services” on those two days, “which perfectly meets all the guidelines,” Mr. Zinna said.

Fears of increased anti-Semitism, meanwhile, also are being expressed in New York.

Earlier this month, the Painted Pot, described in news reports as a do-it-yourself pottery-painting store in Brooklyn, began checking potential customers’ addresses at the door in order to keep out anyone from eight New York zip codes, including such Orthodox centers as Borough Park and Midwood. The Painted Pot backed off after protestors called its actions anti-Semitic.

In a Facebook posting, Painted Pot owner Lisa Mendoza cited some of the messages she had received. One read, “That’s discrimination straight up! This isn’t Nazi Germany and people won’t stand for it.” A second message demanded to know, “What do you have against Jewish people?”

A number of prominent Jewish activists in New York have expressed their concerns. Among them is Matt Nosanchuk, a former Jewish liaison for Barack Obama and the founder of the New York Jewish Agenda, a liberal advocacy group. According to an article in the Jerusalem Post, Mr. Nosanchuk is “worried that the images and statistics out of [Brooklyn] will lead to a wave of anti-Semitism” in the city.

Others also were quoted in that article expressing similar fears. Shani Bechhofer, described as a charedi educator in Rockland County, said that she was “very concerned about an anti-Semitic backlash against this public high-risk behavior. Another was Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of the liberal rabbinic human rights organization T’ruah, who frequently has made various “most influential rabbis” lists. “There’s a fear that anybody who has any anti-Semitic inclinations is going to look at that and make all sorts of assumptions about Jews,” Rabbi Jacobs told the Jerusalem Post. “This is especially terrifying in a context in which charedi Jews have been attacked on the street on a fairly regular basis.”

In the October 12 interview, Tenafly’s mayor offered some advice for religious gatherings of all kinds during the next few months.

“I completely support the houses of worship having the religious portion of their events with families there, all socially distant, whether it’s a bar or bat mitzvah [in a synagogue], or a christening or a confirmation [in a church], but anything that involves having 50 people with coffee and cake afterwards should not be done,” he said. “What happens is, all these individuals are very close to each other socially, personally, and they give up the masks, they’re hugging, they’re kissing. We have the same issues in our family, in the church.

“So I would tell people, give up the social aspects of it, but continue with the spiritual aspects of it.”

Ms. Arguello, for her part, said that singling out Jews for spreading covid-19 was simply wrong on several levels. From what she has seen, she said, the Jewish community is following the rules. “I took a long walk in Englewood yesterday, [including] around the Orthodox community,” she said on Sunday. “I saw people having outside socially distant gatherings for Shabbat, I guess, or for Saturday services. And everybody I passed was wearing a mask.”

Besides, Ms. Arguello emphasized, holidays and upticks in covid-19 cases are neither new or exclusively Jewish. “Any time there’s a holiday. we have an uptick in cases,” she said. “Memorial Day, Labor Day, people at the beach. It doesn’t define religious behavior, Christian or Jewish or whatever. It just happens to be that this holiday was a Jewish holiday….

“It’s just that these people all were celebrating their holiday in the same way that the people who were irresponsible around any other holiday time period” were celebrating other holidays.

If covid-19 cases trace back to a Jewish institution in Tenafly, she said, that should not be a big surprise, either, because “we have a bigger Jewish population than Bergenfield, say, so that’s just a reflection of our population and it’s a reflection of what our population does at different holidays.

“And the takeaway is we’ve got to be extremely careful about Thanksgiving, which is the only holiday in the United States that everybody’s celebrating. So it’s a caution for behavior because people have somewhat let their guard down. There are going to be more incidents just because the kids are back in school and people are congregating more. But in terms of unnecessary social behaviors, we’ve got to restrict them.

“I think there’s always going to be scofflaws…and they push the envelope,” Ms. Arguello concluded. “Every population has a number of people who are going to be challenging restrictions…. Everybody’s got to do their share, because otherwise we’re going to be locked down again. It’s not going to be easy.”

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