Community bands together to battle unprecedented pandemic

Coronavirus (COVID-19). Virtually unheard of less than six months ago. It started on the other side of the world.
A once-a-century pandemic that few really understand, and fewer know how to respond to, has paralyzed the world, the U.S., the Tri-State Area, and our community. Who could have dreamed how stealthily it would invade our shores, shatter our security, impact our synagogues, yeshivot, and semahot. Families are facing agonizing dilemmas previously unheard of – such as, should a wedding be pushed off – something which is usually considered something to avoid at all costs.

Currently on six continents, with over 436,000 people infected at the time of writing, the coronavirus has become the focus of international efforts to contain its spread as much as possible. The numbers are rising every day, and who knows what the next few weeks will bring?

(Please note that since this is a developing and changing situation from one day to the next, by the time this article goes to print the information and situation might be very different than what it is now.)

We find ourselves in a surreal period of quarantines, cancellations, and social distancing. Self-isolation is the order of the day. Travel bans are in effect across every hub. Virtually every non-essential store and company has shuttered in almost every city: restaurants, theaters, shops, gyms, sports centers, community centers. Handshakes and hugs are forbidden. Kollels and synagogues have closed, weddings take place on front porches in front of five people, and minyanim are now frowned upon. Schools are closed, and children learn online. Hand-sanitizer is now a staple item. And we’re washing our hands until it hurts, by doctors’ orders.

The coronavirus has brought all social life to a screeching halt.

The reaction of some has been swift and extreme. People are hoarding supplies and foodstuffs. Surgical masks, a presumed preventative measure, are being bought off the shelves, and even stolen from medical facilities.

Are we going over the top? Being practical and safe? Not
doing enough?

These are all good questions, and as with any sudden change in the status quo, and like any new challenge, we won’t know what we did or didn’t do right, until many weeks, or perhaps months, later.

But first things first. For all of the stress and radical change in lifestyle, writer Michael Pietrzak in Success magazine says it’s important not to lose our perspective, or our reason.

“(We must not let) the parallel virus of media fearmongering drive us to irrational behavior,” he warns, in the lead-in to what has since become the drastic measures undertaken by the U.S. in response to the crisis.

Those aforementioned surgical masks? Pietrzak says those were not meant to protect the layman from germs. They were designed to keep surgeons’ saliva specs from inadvertently falling into a patient’s wounds during operation. And those much-hoarded bottles of Purell – as helpful as they might be – should be used only when hand-washing isn’t available, he says. Should the numbers of patients increase dramatically, Heaven forbid, these bottles will ultimately be needed in medical facilities a whole lot more than on our kitchen counters.

“Let’s not exacerbate an emergency by cleaning out Costco,” Pietrzak urged.

 

A Time For Drastic Change

The numbers are, unfortunately, swiftly rising, but as of the time these words are being written, about 500 coronavirus deaths have occurred in the U.S. – out of a population of 330 million. There
are a total of about 20,000 deaths globally, with China, Iran, Italy, France, and Spain comprising nine-tenths of the fatalities.

There is a variety of presumed reasons why some countries are affected worse than others. Revealingly, the majority of corona deaths have occurred in one country, China, notorious for its poor healthcare. And, as of mid-March, Israeli biophysicist Michael Levitt, in Ctech magazine, said that fortunately, the virus was slowing down in China. Levitt, a Nobel prize winner for chemistry in 2013, also noted that with such densely populated centers in China, one ought to have expected a far greater infection rate.

The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, reported on March 11
that Iran has a relatively higher contagion rate because of its “Chinese-backed infrastructure projects built by scores of
workers and technicians from China.”

Moving westward to Italy, according to the country’s national health authority, nearly all the fatalities involved the more vulnerable segments of the population – those with existing severe medical issues, and the elderly, with the average age of those who have succumbed to the virus at around 80. Italy has a disproportionately high number of seniors, leaving the country more susceptible. Levitt added that Italians are culturally “very warm” and social, thus allowing the virus to spread more quickly.

Of course, this is true of Orthodox Jews, as well, and our community in particular. We regularly assemble with large groups of people – at Shabbat meals, in the synagogue for prayer services, classes and sebets, at large celebrations and fundraising affairs, and at family gatherings. The unique social, close-knit nature of our community – which is, normally, our greatest source of strength and pride – is our Achilles’ heel when an epidemic strikes. And, it makes it all the more difficult for us to take the steps which health and government officials are urging – to stay at home as much as possible and avoid all socializing. For us especially, this marks a drastic change of our cultural – and even religious – norms. But the severity of the situation necessitates that we follow these restrictions and quickly adapt ourselves to the new set of circumstances that has been thrust upon us – difficult as this may be.

 

Community Responses

In an effort to keep the community safe, follow legal guidelines and mitigate worries, nearly all of our religious institutions in the area have closed.

In the days leading up to mid-March, the Eatontown Synagogue (Congregation Shaare Tefilah Bene Moshe) continued their minyanim, but in a larger room, with people keeping their distance from one another. Congregants were asked to bring their own books, so multiple hands did not touch the same prayer books and Humashim. Nevertheless, books were being disinfected, just in case. Women who reported slight illness symptoms were warned not to immerse in the mikveh.

That was before our community synagogues’ rabbis, presidents, and doctors held a conference call to determine the next steps. On March 16th, Rabbi Moshe Douek, Rabbi of the Eatontown shul, said that there were no more services. Doors were closed until further notice. A full lockdown (a few days later, all synagogues, yeshivot, and kollels in the community were closed). Weddings have been cancelled. Rabbi Douek said that his synagogue is providing video clips for children praying at home.

Hillel Yeshiva, like most schools in our community, has been teaching their students via Zoom, a remote method of instruction. Zoom does not require internet access, so the teaching can continue with all the safeguards that a yeshiva requires.

“We were already preparing in late February, with a faculty meeting, with what could be an inevitable school closure, protocol, and plans,” says Rabbi Leon Cohen, assistant rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue and a teacher at Hillel Yeshiva, which serves some
800 students. The biggest challenge, he reports, is adapting and adopting new instructional methods that few have been exposed
to – or at least not at length.

“It’s tough to know if the students really understand the work, if they’re really hearing you,” he explains. “We tend to forget as teachers that it’s not just about the instruction or content, but it’s connecting with the classroom, and being able to bond with them, and to understand them. That, I feel, is what’s missing most.”

Sammy Sitt, Director of Deal Sephardic Network (DSN), says that the facility closed mid-March, when the city declared an emergency. The center offers various sports activities, with a 2,000-strong membership, and is now trying to help homebound community members stay healthy with live streaming exercise classes. “The good thing is that we can show the best of our community coming out, helping each other in need,” he said.

Ike Dweck, Founder and Director of SAFE, says that many clients are foregoing one-to-one therapy visits, for obvious reasons, and group therapies are cancelled. Online resources and internet chats are offered as alternatives.

“We want our clients to be safe and adhere to guidelines regarding self-quarantine and social distancing, but isolation can be very detrimental to recovery,” he says. SAFE, he added, began putting contingencies in place even before New York declared a state of emergency, including a thorough cleaning of offices and screening potentially ill clients. As of press time, the doors remain open for crisis situations, and the organization is still available by phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week (866-569-SAFE).

Mr. Craig Lubner, Assistant Principal at YDE Boys High School, says that the Yeshiva has followed medical advice and Da’at Torah to close in-person classes, and is now giving live classes via Zoom video-conferencing while supporting and supplementing student learning using Edmodo – a leading learning management system.

Mr. Lubner added, “When the school year began, we could not ever have imagined that we would be using Digital Distance Learning to give classes. While not ideal for obvious reasons, now that it is fully deployed, going forward, we are considering ways to utilize elements of distance learning to help our students in various ways, including enhancing homework assignments and providing individualized tutoring. With parents and children all at home together, we are leveraging this valuable opportunity to engage parents in their children’s education in new and exciting ways.ˮ Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Meyer Yedid last week praised the entire YDE community for “its deep calmness, internal strength, and shining beauty amidst the panic and confusion that this situation has brought about.ˮ

Rabbi Yaakov Marcus of Yeshivat Or Hatorah says the decision to shut down the yeshiva in early-March was because of pending health concerns, and they did so before the city shut down. Hebrew and secular studies are now being conducted online.

“We knew this was coming, so the staff talked about it and met about it. We already sent home work beforehand, and within two days we had things set up online. New York State regulation was already two weeks away. All the teachers had all the courses set out: Gemara, Halachah, Humash.”

Rather than lament, Rabbi Marcus encourages people to see this crisis as a lesson. “People should realize Gd runs the world, and he’s sending us a message. We have to strengthen ourselves through study of Torah, prayer, and following safe practices.”

 

Keep Calm and Stay Rational

Dr. Abdhu Sharkawy, an infectious disease specialist from Toronto, posted online an important message of hope, urging everyone to stay calm and composed, rather than resort to panic.

“I am rightly concerned for the welfare of those who are elderly, in frail health, or disenfranchised who stand to suffer mostly, and disproportionately, at the hands of this new scourge. But I am not scared of Covid-19.

“What I am scared about is the loss of reason and wave of fear that has induced the masses of society into a spellbinding spiral of panic, stockpiling obscene quantities of anything that could fill a bomb shelter adequately in a post-apocalyptic world.”

He emphasized in particular the harm such hysteria could have on children:

“Instead of reason, rationality, open-mindedness and altruism,
we are telling them to panic, be fearful, suspicious, reactionary,
and self-interested.”

Dr. Sharkawy urges everybody to take the time to stay informed, to get the facts, “as opposed to conjecture, speculation
and catastrophizing.”

In short, he says: “Facts not fear. Clean hands. Open hearts.”

Victor Davis Hanson wrote in the City Journal of March 16 of the potential for increased substance abuse among those struggling with stress and anxiety during this epidemic, as a dangerous coping mechanism. He further warned that depression is likelier to set in during times of upheaval, like we are experiencing, especially with the economy crumbling. Hanson urges us all to be mindful of the signs of mental illness, learn yoga or meditation to help ease the anxiety, and phone a friend to lean on.

Looking Ahead

Is there any good news?

Yes!

The Guardian of the UK reported on March 20 that about three dozen companies and academic institutions “are racing to create” a coronavirus vaccine, while “at least four of which already have candidates they have been testing in animals. The first of these – produced by Boston-based biotech firm Moderna – will enter human trials imminently.”

The other, and more important, piece of good news is that as observant Jews, we believe in Providence and that the world is governed by an omnipotent, benevolent Creator. As long as we do our share – taking the necessary precautions that health officials are urging – we can rely on Gd to do the rest. Our responsible handling of the situation, coupled with our heartfelt prayers and efforts to improve ourselves, will, please Gd, get us through this period and raise us all, both as individuals and as a community, to greater heights of unity and religious commitment.

We look forward to soon returning to our synagogues to offer a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving to Gd for ending this crisis and for once again showing the world His unlimited power and grace, amen.