In response to the novel coronavirus and the threat it poses, the local Jewish community in northern New Jersey and Rockland County responded in novel, far-reaching, dramatic ways. In perhaps a textbook example of decisiveness, its leaders took steps that were difficult — hard even to think about, much less to put into words and issue as requirements.
They probably – and in ways that cannot be proven, because how can you prove something that doesn’t happen? — have saved many lives.
The most drastic move came from the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, the organization for the county’s Orthodox rabbis. Last Thursday, it issued a directive mandating that all the shuls to which its rabbis belong should close; community members should stay inside; most of their children’s schools already had closed, and their children should not have playdates with kids from other families. No shared Shabbat meals, and restaurants should be open for takeout only, so no sitting with family and friends over food, talking, relaxing, feeling properly at home in the world. No smachot except virtually, no minyanim except virtually, funerals in person of course because people die, but very small funerals, and no shiva except virtually. Instead, people should practice extreme social distancing.
All this is necessary because the most important Jewish value is preserving life.
Rabbi Zev Goldberg, who leads the Young Israel of Fort Lee, is the RCBC’s vice president and its spokesperson. He is very clear about why the RCBC made its decision. It’s all about science.
“I don’t believe that anything like this decision has been made before, but the level of information that is being shared right now also is unprecedented,” he said. “The extent to which we can understand a global pandemic and see it coming also is unprecedented. Seeing the data from China and Italy gives us an indication of what is happening here.”
The rabbis made their decision after listening to local government officials and doctors from Holy Name Medical Center, Englewood Health, and Hackensack Meridian Health. “The feeling in the room was, ‘Let’s be ahead of this process. Let’s be proactive rather than reactive,” Rabbi Goldberg said. “‘Let’s be guided by science.’
“That’s the critical piece. This wasn’t a bunch of rabbis making a decision about what we think is best practices.”
The problem, as the medical professionals explained it to them, Rabbi Goldberg said, is “the concern is not only about the coronavirus itself, it’s also about the hospitals being able to manage their caseloads.” Italy is a frightening case in point. “That was the triggering point for many of us.”
After they listened to the medical professionals, “the consensus was that now that we know that we’re doing it, let’s do it right. That means that because shuls are where people gather, let’s close them down. Let’s cut this off as best we can.
“The bottom line is that preserving life is of paramount importance.”
In fact, Rabbi Goldberg said, “although closing synagogues, and the broader social distancing, was done with a heavy heart — a very heavy heart — still to me there is something about it that is inspiring.
“It is something that we learn about in the beit midrash, but to see it playing out in real life, to see the way that Judaism puts the preservation of life above all else – it is our values in action.”
Rabbi Daniel Fridman leads the Jewish Center of Teaneck, and he also is a member of the RCBC. The day after the RCBC’s letter came out, he added his own, which contributed more explanation and some softer touches to the first one.
Social distancing is very important, he said; that doesn’t stop people from “walking outside. You should get fresh air. We don’t want people to congregate, though; people have to be wise. Go to your backyard, but get fresh air.
“It isn’t okay just to avoid the virus. You have to stay healthy, eat healthy, get exercise. Take care of your own mental health. You want to strengthen your own resilience.
“We have to be prepared for what the epidemiologists and specialists are telling us. We should be prayerful and hopeful, but we also have to be prepared. There is a very fine balance that we have to strike in terms of being optimistic and also realistic, and safe, and prepared. We literally all have each other’s health in our hands. Part of that is not having false conceptions.
“As long as we adhere to these restrictions and dot every i and cross every t, we should be safe. But remember that people’s lives are at stake.
“We have one principle that remains consistent and then everything else becomes contingent on it. That principle is taking the best medical advice about protecting our community. No decisions are being made on the basis of panic. The one unchanging principle is the sanctity of life. The rest of it is subject to ongoing review.”
How should daily life go?
He suggests that people daven at the same time — it can’t be a minyan, he said, because that demands that 10 men be in the same physical place. But everyone still can benefit from knowing that the community is together, doing the same thing at the same time, even if not physically. “There is a story of two rabbis in the Talmud,” he said. “Reb Nachman has taken ill, and Reb Yitzchak comes to him and says, ‘Should we go to your house for a minyan?’ And Nachman says, ‘No. I’m not up for it.’ So Yitzchak says, ‘Okay, do you want me to set something up so that we can keep you informed about when the minyan is meeting?’ Reb Nachman says, ‘What’s the point of that, if I can’t be there?’ And Reb Yitzhak says to him, ‘No no no, you don’t understand. It is not a zero sum game.’ If there is a minyan meeting somewhere, that creates an et ratzon, a time of favor, and you can participate in that.’”
There is a way — granted, a minority way — to read some other passages of the Talmud that suggest there is some real benefit to having people daven at the same time, that the et ratzon, the time of favor, is created,” Rabbi Fridman suggested. And even if it’s not, “it still is valuable for reasons of community and cohesion” to have everyone davening separately but together.
Rabbi Fridman suggested that people should dress for Shabbat, to honor the day properly, even though they have to stay home, dressed up but alone. He tells the story of a teacher he had when he studied in Israel, one of his roshei yeshiva, “a Holocaust survivor by the name of Reb Yehuda Amital.
“He would say that we had no idea of what honoring Shabbes was. He would say that when he was in the labor camps in the Holocaust, he had basically one rag that he wore all week, and he had saved a white undershirt to wear for Shabbes. And he said that he was able to feel more kavod Shabbes” — of the honor that is Shabbat —“with his white undershirt than he ever did any other time in his life.”
This isn’t the Holocaust, Rabbi Fridman said quickly; “this is very scary, but really it isn’t the Holocaust.” Still, the story is striking. “When we have to do it for ourselves, when we don’t have shul, when we don’t have the Torah reading, it is all the more important for us to literally take it on our own shoulders, and find our own ways of honoring Shabbes. The ball really is totally in our court in terms of what Shabbes will look like.”
It is wrenching for people not to be able to say kaddish, but Rabbi Fridman is engineering a second-best workaround. “We have a member who recently lost his father in a terrible accident. He took every single name from the shul” – the names of people for whom kaddish is being said — “and some names from outside the shul, and he wrote them all down on a piece of paper, and he davened and said kaddish for everybody.” This man now is in a part of the country where it’s still safe to meet for a minyan. “We don’t know how long that will last, and we will keep on trying to find minyanim in places that are safe,” Rabbi Fridman said. “I know that people are hurting and want to honor their mother, honor their father, and they are feeling torn right now. I want them to know that kaddish is being said.”
There is something good that came out of this, he added. “I truly believe that this is a way for all of us to grow as people. If we are going to be with our families, it is a chance to be more patient and loving, far beyond when these restrictions no longer apply. It is a chance to be concerned about those who are homebound and who are alone in life, long after the quarantines are a distant memory.
“At some point this is going to pass, but we cannot allow the opportunity to pass. In light of these lessons, we want things to go back to normal from a health standpoint, but we don’t want to be the same people at the end of it, in terms of the opportunity it presents for character growth.”
Last Friday, the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, which represents Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis in Bergen, Hudson, and a part of Passaic counties – the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s catchment area – put out a statement. Unlike the RCBC’s statement, the NJBR’s did not mandate that shuls close, but it strongly suggested that they be shuttered, and it provided instructions for severe social distancing should they remain open. On Sunday, a new directive made the advice to close far stronger.
Rabbi Jennifer Schlosberg of the Glen Rock Jewish Center, which is Conservative, is the board’s treasurer; she and Rabbi David Fine, its president, cowrote the message.
Although the county’s new regulations, mandating closings, have pre-empted much of what the statement requested, she was glad to have it in place. It had been up to individual rabbis to tell parents that their children’s bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies would have to be postponed, she said. “These children had been working so hard, and the rabbis were feeling a lot of pressure to continue. The rabbis knew about the severity of the situation, so writing the document was incredibly powerful. It brings out the intensity and serious nature of this.
“Pikuach nefesh” – the Jewish value of saving a life – “is a significant factor here. The only way, scientifically, that we can stop this pandemic is to step up.
“Until now everyone was playing chicken. Nobody wanted to go first. Someone has to take that leap, and the power of doing it as a group is significant.”
Rabbi Schlosberg is extremely impressed by the RCBC, whose rabbis, she said, have very real sway with their congregations. “The power is that the Orthodox community will go to their rebbes for a decision, and they will listen. The fact that the RCBC did what it did — they literally saved thousands of lives.
“God bless them. It was incredible.”
And now, for everyone facing the pandemic, “This is God calling upon us to be heroes. To save our greater community. This is not just about us. This is beyond us.”
Rabbi David Fine, who leads Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, also is the president of the Rabbinical Assembly’s New Jersey region. As a Conservative rabbi, he is working on a solution to the problem of what to do with a bar- or bat-mitzvah student who has worked hard to prepare a haftarah or Torah reading, and now learns that the celebration must be postponed for an indefinite time. Can that student read what he or she has learned or must another reading be substituted? He is leaning toward allowing the haftarah to be read out of sequence, but so far can’t see his way clear to doing the same thing with a Torah portion. The issue is important because of how much it means to the student, and how much each student means to the future of the Jewish people.
He’s hoping to livestream Shabbat services – “the question of whether electricity could be used in the Conservative movement was answered 70 years ago,” he said. “One view was that you could use electricity for anything if it increases the oneg of Shabbat; the other is that you could use it as long as it is not in violation of Shabbat.” So that’s not an issue for him. It’s just hard to get the technology set up.
He’s also working on the question of whether you can livestream a minyan. The specific question is how do you know that there are ten people actually connected. (Or really nine people, he said; he’d be running it, he’d always be there, and he’d be the tenth.) He’s spent a lot of time working on that opinion, which he will circulate to the RA. “It was sort of therapeutic,” he said.
He knows that his community’s trip to Oberammergau, where he is part of a council helping defang the anti-Semitism of that once-a-decade German passion play, is likely to be canceled. There’s some irony in that, he said; the play first was mounted in 1634, after a plague raged through the town of Oberammergau, whose people promised to tell the story of their Lord if they were spared.
An interfaith colleague of his, Dr. Peter A. Pettit of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa, emailed to disabuse him of the notion of any cause and effect: “Point of historical order,” Dr. Pettit wrote. “The play performance was in gratitude for being spared from the plague; I don’t know that anyone thought it would have any prophylactic effect moving forward.”
Rabbi Brian Leiken heads Temple Beth Sholom in New City — it’s a Reform shul – and he is the president of the Rockland County Board of Rabbis.
His shul, like the Orangetown Jewish Center, which is Conservative, had to close last week, because someone who later was diagnosed with Covid-19 had been there. (That was Matt Krass, whose story we tell on page 14.) Now, of course, it’s closed for the duration, and would have been anyway. “We have created an entire week of virtual events,” Rabbi Leiken said. “They’re all streaming. “We have healing services on Thursday night, Shabbat services on Friday night. Our men’s club has a doctor who is speaking to the congregation by live stream on Wednesday night. We have a song session for our preschool; we are doing adult ed; our religious school is doing a family education program, talking about responsibility and its role in our lives.
“We are finding that people like spending time with us. It is a break from cable news, and people are looking for opportunities to be together virtually.
“We are worried about people who live alone, and so we send out messages. I sent my cellphone number out to the whole congregation, and I said that they should text and call me. I will spend the rest of the week going through our membership lists and calling every congregant, one by one.
“We set up a grocery brigade for people who are willing to go to stores and pick up groceries. I’ve heard so far from 30 people who are willing to do that.
“That’s where we stand right now. We are coming together as a community, and using it as an opportunity to be present for people.
“Our goal is to create an agenda, week by week, with these virtual events. I feel like I am creating a cable access station, with different congregants playing different roles. I think that there is something to going onto your computer and watching the people in your community speak to you.
“One of the most powerful things we did at Shabbat services was that I kept my cellphone on and asked people to text us things,” Rabbi Leiken added. “People did. They were texting me with messages.”
His colleague, Cantor Anna Zhar, joined him at his house, and “we had over 120 people online with us,” he said. Although everyone was separate, atomized at home, it was in some ways more intimate because it was more close-up. The camera was closer to Rabbi Leiken’s and Cantor Zhar’s faces than any congregant would be at shul. “There are now debates going on about what’s better,” Rabbi Leiken said. “Should we stream services from an empty sanctuary, or should we stream them from home? A lot of people are saying that we should stream them from home. You want to be where everybody else is, at home, and it’s also a reminder that the sanctuary is empty.
“Our homes can be our sanctuary.
“We were sent pictures of people eating dinner and watching services. It was incredibly powerful to hear about people’s experiences watching this.”
What about the future? “I am hoping that novelty of this doesn’t wear off quickly,” Rabbi Leiken said. “Right now, it’s new, and people are excited by what we are doing, but it is going to get very difficult. We are going to start hearing about people’s pain. I hope that this reminds people of why community matters.”
Rabbi Elchanan Weinbach heads Congregation Shaarey Israel, a traditional shul in Suffern. The shul was shuttered — someone there also had tested positive for the virus; “our thoughts are with him” Rabbi Weinbach said — and he and his family spent what would have been a normal Shabbat at home, except nothing is normal anymore.
He, his wife, and three of their four grown children were at home that Shabbat. One of their children, Eliezer, works for Camp Isabella Freedman, the sprawling, beautiful organic farm and retreat space in Falls Village, Connecticut. It had many events scheduled — but now it’s closed, for at least three months.
Rabbi Weinbach’s wife, Yocheved Weinbach, teaches at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, which of course is closed. Most of the school’s teachers already have begun online learning sessions with their students, but because Ms. Weinbach is a support teacher, her online work didn’t start until the middle of this week.
So they’re all at home, like their congregants; in touch, on line, working to get more and more services available virtually, hunkered down, waiting to see what will come next.
Michael Snow is New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s liaison to the Jewish community. He met with Rockland’s Jewish clergy and lay leaders last week, fielded their questions and requests, and will provide information as he gets it.
The information changes constantly. How long can the coronavirus live on different surfaces? On hard surfaces, Mr. Snow said, the answer seemed to be 12 hours, but now scientists think that it might be 36. It would be good to know definitely, and eventually we will.
What should protocols for testing and treating the illness be? Again, they’re in flux, but scientists and hospital leaders are working toward a solution. “We are writing the playbook as we go,” Mr. Snow said.
The Jewish community is so interconnected, and “although we have state lines and county lines, the virus doesn’t respect them,” he continued. That’s why a virus that started in New Rochelle infected so many people in Bergen County.” And that’s why governors Cuomo, Phil Murphy of New Jersey, and Ned Lamont of Connecticut came together to impose rules on the tristate area. “We will benefit from a consistent multistate strategy,” Mr. Snow said.
One very local strategy is drive-in testing, which allows people who might have the virus to remain in their cars until they are diagnosed, keeping other people in waiting rooms safe. That testing is likely to come to Rockland very soon, Mr. Snow said.
As liaison, “I am getting calls literally 24 hours a day from rabbis, JCCs, executive directors of all sorts of Jewish organizations across the religious spectrum, with questions about what they should do practically, medically, and also philosophically and emotionally. What tone should they be taking?
“They are trying to find the balance, of not God forbid making the anxiety and fear worse, but still trying to underscore the gravity of the situation.”
The situation is grave, and the need is to flatten the curve — to make sure that as few people as possible are infected, and that if they are going to get infected that happens later rather than sooner, so that the hospitals will be more able to handle them, with replenished supplies and doctors reinvigorated by knowing more about how to treat them.
Until then, everyone says, stay far away from each other physically, but remain open emotionally. Help each other, and remember that community comes in all sorts of ways. Even virtually.