Precautionary measures
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Precautionary measures

Shut-downs, self-quarantines, and safety precautions in face of viral outbreak

It happened here.

Through coincidence and connection — as well as a caution — our corner of the East Coast was among the first to begin shutting down for the Covid-19 coronavirus.

Coincidence: There was nothing preordained that New York State’s first known victim of the virus would be a 50-year-old man from Westchester County’s modern Orthodox community. But connections within the modern Orthodox community run deep, so it is not surprising that as health officials traced his steps, they were found to overlap with many people in Bergen and Rockland counties.

Dozens of local students were placed in self-quarantine when the SAR Academy in Riverdale, where some of the patient’s children go to school, was closed down last week. Adults who had crossed paths with the patients at simchas and funerals were also asked to self-quarantine. (This week, school closures came to New Jersey, as the Frisch School in Paramus was shut down too, and to Rockland, where the East Ramapo school district discovered three students who tested positive for the virus. Those students are believed to be related to members of the catering staff who came in contact with the Westchester patient.)

Before the self-quarantine began, however, a path crosser from Englewood went on to the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he crossed paths with several prominent members of Congress, several of whom spent time with President Donald Trump before being notified and entering self-quarantine themselves. (Mr. Trump has said that he has not been tested for the virus, although he has not said why he made that decision. He is not self-quarantining.)

Caution: After consulting with local health officials, synagogues have boosted hygiene and continued with services as usual. But many institutions canceled their Purim carnivals.

“We decided the carnival was not a clean environment,” Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El in Closter said. “A lot of the activities are throwing games where you have to hand the object to the next kid. You have kids with running noses and sniffles.” By contrast, “In shul, everyone has their own environment, their own grogger.”

Nonetheless, Rabbi Kirshner said that there was a noticeable decline in synagogue attendance last Shabbat. In part, that’s because the synagogue is actively discouraging octogenarians, the demographic most at risk from the virus, from showing up.

With many members of the Orthodox community under quarantine — including students at Yeshiva University, which shut down last week — the Orthodox Union sent out guidance on the possibility of fulfilling the mitzvah of hearing the megillah read through a live online broadcast if a private reading could not be arranged.

Tired of singing “Happy Birthday” as you wash your hands? A 17-year-old British software developer has created a website that lets you match your favorite song lyrics with government handwashing charts. This ready-for-Passover version has not been formally approved by the Centers for Disease Control.

Our Jewish community’s connection to Israel also played a role in virus awareness. Last week, Nefesh B’Nefesh cancelled a long-planned day of aliyah promotion in Teaneck, which was expected to attract more than 1,100 people from across the region to discuss details of making a new life in Israel. The reason: Israel had imposed tight restrictions on foreign travel in an effort to contain the virus, which so far has been confirmed in 50 people there.

“We had at least 50 people flying in from Israel for this,” Yael Katsman, vice president of communications for Nefesh B’Nefesh, said.

Israel’s travel restrictions also led both the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Rockland Jewish Federation and Foundation to cancel planned visits by Israeli high school students.

Israel’s health ministry ordered that anyone returning from an international conference must be in quarantine for two weeks. It further banned many government officials — including physicians — from any overseas travel. This put a fatal crimp in a planned programming track at the Nefesh B’Nefesh gathering devoted to helping physicians relocate to Israel.

“That pretty much made it impossible,” Ms. Katsman said. And with concern over the virus growing, holding the conference no longer seemed responsible. “It felt like too much of a risk for everybody,” she said. “We couldn’t take a chance with so many people coming from so many communities.”

Instead, the event is moving online, with the planned sessions being livestreamed from  on Sunday.

Israel’s travel restrictions also led both the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Rockland Jewish Federation and Foundation to cancel planned visits by Israeli high school students.

As universities across the country tell students not to return from spring break and replace in-person classes with on-line learning, some local Jewish students can say they were in cyberschool before Harvard joined them. SAR in Riverdale enrolls 900 students in elementary school and 600 in its high school. About a tenth of them are from Bergen County, according to Rabbi Naftali Harcsztark, the high school’s founding principal, who lives in Teaneck. Last week, the New York State health authorities closed the school when a parent was found to be infected; later, some students also were found to be infected with the virus. Students are under home quarantine until Monday afternoon. SAR has been conducting classes online using conferencing software.

For the school’s megillah reading, “we had 770 devices connected,” he said. “That’s probably close to 2000 people.”

Overall, “The kids and faculty have felt like they’re making something special happen. It’s been a very interesting experience.”

At this point, about 15 students have been found to be infected. “Thankfully, the students are experiencing mild to no symptoms,” he said.

Being at the cutting edge of a pandemic has its moments. The school was the subject of a joke on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” mispronouncing its name to connect it with the acronym of the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, SARS.

“It’s an old joke,” Rabbi Harcsztark said. “On the other hand, it’s a lot of fun to see that happen.”

That said, “as much as you try to create a positive energy around this, it’s important to note that we’re thinking about the people who are actually in need of a refuah shleimah,” a complete healing. “You come back to that. A number of our meetings we start with tehilim,” psalms traditionally recited as prayers for the sick. “In all our communications, we remind people to keep [the Westchester victim] and his family in mind.”

Jewish institutions that haven’t shut down nonetheless are doing their part to contain the outbreak.

“We are taking all of the precautions that are recommended by the Center for Disease Control and the Department of Health,” David Kirschtel said. Mr. Kirschtel is CEO of the Rockland JCC. “We are aggressively working to maintain a clean and safe environment. We’ll obviously look to the professionals for advice and guidance. The reality is you have to be careful and wash your hands.”

Reports from Hong Kong show that efforts to control the spread of Covid-19 through handwashing and social distancing, including school and workplace closure, also have cut the transmission of ordinary and widespread diseases.

Steve Freedman, head of school of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, said that the school “has been following the protocols outlined by the New Jersey Department of Health and the CDC.” That includes “deep sanitizing of the building every day, and frequent handwashing with soap and water. We are asking students and adults who are under the weather to stay out. And we are preparing for extended learning at home should we need to activate that.”

He stressed the importance of “keeping calm and measured and reassuring the children they will be fine. Remember, it’s our job to keep kids safe.”

As for the school’s planned post-Passover Israel trip for the eighth grade?

“The answer I give the kids is, as of today the trip is scheduled,” he said. “The trip will go on as long as the State of Israel and our government allows. We follow the advice and protocols of government officials.” As for Israel’s announced quarantine on foreign visitors, “Our trip is too far out to worry about it yet,” Mr. Freedman said. “So much can happen between now and then.”

He said that last week the New Jersey department of health had a conference call for all the state’s schools. “There are a lot of updates. They’ve been very responsive,” he said.

Rabbi Kirschner said that Temple Emanu-El has taken a variety of steps to prevent the spread of the virus. They include hiring extra maintenance staff for deep cleanings of the synagogue. The congregation has bought extra hand washing stations, and it is encouraging people to wash when they walk into the building.

And it has posted signs. “If you have any illness or compromised immune systems, if you’re an octogenarian or older, don’t enter,” Rabbi Kirshner said.

He has encouraged people more at risk or who want to play it safe to “join us by virtual service.” And he asked for a “touch-free Shabbat,” with no handshaking, hugs, or kissing of the mezuzah and Torah at services.

At the Jewish Home Family in Rockleigh, a team has been meeting on a daily basis about the virus, its CEO, Carol Silver Elliott, said.

“We’ve gone through all of our protocols for an outbreak response,” she said. “We are as prepared as we can be in the event that Covid-19 comes to our door.”

The institution has begun screening every visitor who comes to the campus. “Every visitor is required to answer a list of questions from the CDC. Do you have any cold symptoms, do you have a fever, have you been out of the country for two weeks? Have you been in contact with anyone being investigated for the Covid-19 virus?

“We’re asking anyone who answers yes not to come in and visit. We’re doing the same thing with staff. If you have any symptoms at all you are not to come to work. We changed our sick leave policy — if out of work for even a day you have to be cleared before returning to work.”

The home has suspended its intergenerational programs, which brings schoolchildren in to meet with its seniors. (For a story about that program, see page 12.) “We were supposed to have a Shabbaton with NCSY,” the Orthodox Union’s youth group, she added. “We canceled it.”

Luckily, many of the connections between seniors and students are conducted online rather than face to face, and they are continuing. “Our priority is the health and safety of the elders we care for,” Ms. Elliott said. “We trained the elders on handwashing, just as we’re constantly training our staff.”

In contrast to the Greek Orthodox Church, which decreed that as a matter of faith the ritual of communion could not pass on the virus, Rabbi Kirshner emphasized that if his synagogue needs to be closed, it will be.

“A synagogue is not a hospital,” he said. “Nothing a synagogue does is absolutely essential. Everything we do is elective. Preserving life and health is paramount to us.

“Judaism is loaded with things that allow a second chance,” he said, noting the biblical law allowing for a Passover sacrifice to be offered a month later for those who couldn’t bring one on the actual holiday. “Judaism is totally flexible and understanding in these extenuating circumstances.”

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