The Friday preceding Shabbos Ki Sisa seemed like an episode of the popular television action series 24, with the situation escalating hour by hour; but instead of 24, the number was 18:42, the candle-lighting time when all electronic communications ceased in the Jewish community.
“It was a hard balance between making sure that the shuls are open and that safety procedures are followed with 100 percent compliance,” said Rabbi Elan Segelman, mara d’asra of Kehilas Torah Temimah in Kew Gardens Hills. “It did not make sense to have some shuls open and others closed.”
That afternoon, the shuls and schools of Bergen County in northern New Jersey were already closed since early Thursday by order of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which represents the rabbis of 28 shuls and one nursing home. “It is with a very heavy heart that we are suspending so many of the most crucial routines of our daily lives and life-cycle moments,” the council wrote in its public letter. “We do this only because of the compelling nature of our circumstance and the decisive medical testimonies that are consistent with CDC recommendations.”
The drastic measure in Bergen County was followed by the community in West Hempstead, where a resident tested positive for coronavirus. That patient is Rabbi Etan Ehrenfeld, who is also an assistant principal at Yeshiva Har Torah in Little Neck, which resulted in the school’s closing on March 10. Then there was a letter from 14 pulpit rabbis in the Five Towns early on Friday explaining the “excruciating decision” to close their synagogues for Shabbos and indefinitely from that point on. Their letter followed a confirmed case of the virus in the Five Towns.
Among the signatories is Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, who serves as an Associate Rabbi at Congregation Anshei Chesed and at the Young Israel of Woodmere. He is also Chairman of Medicine and is Hospital Epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau, a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, and a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
“We are at a tipping point here,” he said in an interview with Hamodia. “At this point, everything should be closed. Unfortunately, that includes shuls and schools. We need to do all we can to minimize social mixing between people. It is important for everyone to realize that this is an extremely critical time when we can, b’ezras Hashem, prevent a much more difficult period for klal Yisrael.”
In Queens, the Jewish community was in a state of confusion. Should it follow the neighboring communities in shutting everything down? How great is the potential of the virus to spread in this community? How will our children learn? Who will be watching them?
“The information changed to the very last moment. Nobody was interested in closing but the halachic and medical authorities were firm on this,” said Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg of Congregation Etz Chaim. He was not waiting for the final word to close his shul. “My son urged me to close, and I’m in an at-risk category, which my doctors confirmed.”
Yair Rosenberg is a writer for Tablet Magazine, an online publication of Jewish-related news. “His training and instincts told him that it was going to blow up the way that it did.”
That very week, Yair Rosenberg released an album of Shabbos songs, which his father played for the members of Etz Chaim in a Zoom meeting on Friday afternoon. “I came dressed for Shabbos, so that it can be a real Shabbos even if it is awkward.” After 25 hours of silence, the virtual Etz Chaim community reconvened online. “The members each received a pie from Benjy’s Pizza for our virtual melaveh malkah.” Rabbi Rosenberg provided Torah riddles and a d’var Torah while Yoni Benedek provided the remote/live music.
Rabbi Segelman’s shul had its musical Shabbaton last week with Y-Studs, which now seems like a distant memory. In last Thursday’s email to members, the Shabbos program envisioned canceling children’s groups, the kiddush, s’udah sh’lishis, and Sunday morning shiur to minimize social interaction. “The situation kept changing rapidly,” Rabbi Segelman said. By early Friday, all services were canceled indefinitely. “It’s definitely going to be more difficult for us, but it is also an opportunity to interact with our children, bond with our families, and be able to m’chazeik together.”
The shul’s landlord, the Yeshiva of Central Queens, also had to face this difficult choice. One by one, Jewish schools across the region were closing, but Mayor Bill de Blasio insisted on only closing those public schools that had cases of coronavirus. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, teachers’ union head Michael Mulgrew, and a growing number of medical experts, teachers, and parents were calling for a shutdown of the nation’s largest urban school system.
Initially, YCQ curtailed its afterschool programs, but as it became evident that anyone could be a carrier and its symptoms do not appear right away, only the greatest degree of social distancing could isolate carriers from everyone else. Initially, parents were emailed about the building being closed for the weekend and on Monday. By Sunday, it was closed indefinitely.
YCQ Principal Rabbi Mark Landsman sent out a video message to students, offering words of encouragement. “The entire world is going through a life test. A very difficult test. It’s called the coronavirus. We just have to be careful. Wash our hands. Follow our doctors who are guiding us and telling us to stay home.”
Among the leading poskim, consensus developed in favor of a complete shutdown, “Sometimes we have to break the rules in order to follow our authorities,” said Rabbi Israel Itzhakov of the Beth Gavriel youth minyan. “I picked up a sefer Torah and davened at home with my immediate family. An exact minyan. It was a difficult responsibility.”
On the dead-end of 70th Avenue, behind YCQ, a minyan gathered to daven outdoors with six feet separating each man. Among the participants there was an understanding that even this precaution may not be enough to satisfy social distancing and preventive measures. Likewise, the Atria apartments had some of its residents spaced far apart on the rooftop to recite Kaddish with onlookers responding from their windows. No outsiders were permitted to enter the building for davening. “There was a safe distance between mispal’lim,” Rabbi Segelman initially said. Before each minyan, he was called to pasken, as the situation changed. Following his p’sak, the minyan for Sunday night was canceled, ending this final minyan option.
Yakov Gendler went back to his apartment with other concerns. He works as a physical therapist at a hospital, and his wife is a nurse. “It seems daunting. Hopefully my parents can come. Then there is my grandmother who needs to return to New York from Florida. Who will pick her up?”
With a full day at home for the entire family for an unspecified period, Rabbi Itzhakov recommends setting up a schedule of daily tasks to balance one’s work, children’s learning, davening, and breaks. “Make a schedule and a curriculum. And prepare for Pesach.”
With months of social distancing recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, there is a desire to maintain as much of the pre-virus daily life as possible. Although many of his congregants are now working from home and educating their own children, Rabbi Shmuel Marcus of the Young Israel of Queens Valley is maintaining the 5:30 a.m. Daf Yomi lecture via phone conferencing.
He sent out guidelines for davening at home. “It is critical to designate a particular place in which one will daven regularly, a place that affords one relative freedom from noise and disruption. Proper kavanah is obviously most critical, and in the words of the Gemara in B’rachos 6b, ‘Anyone who designates a place for his davening, the God of Avraham will assist him.’”
The call echoes Rabbi Rosenberg’s d’var Torah. “The actual world is built by Hashem. The virtual world is the Mishkan. We are building a virtual world,” Rabbi Rosenberg said.