How are Jerusalem’s synagogues coping with coronavirus?

Shulgoers and rabbis share their fears – and the precautions they are taking

EMPLOYING BLACK humor to escape the panic, many – like Miriam Gold (pictured) – have been taking selfies with Corona bottles. The beer company could probably use our prayers as well. (photo credit: BENJY SINGER)
EMPLOYING BLACK humor to escape the panic, many – like Miriam Gold (pictured) – have been taking selfies with Corona bottles. The beer company could probably use our prayers as well.
(photo credit: BENJY SINGER)
I could quite easily be writing this sitting in quarantine. The lady who was here in Jerusalem from the US who was diagnosed with COVID-19 (popularly called “corona”), was on my patch of earth: Hadar Mall, Osher Ad, First Station, Mamilla – all locations that are part of my day. Luckily, after looking through my receipts and tracking back, I calculated I had not been in these places when she had. Still, it shows you how close to home this horrific virus has become.
Shuls are central to the daily routine of many. Often hundreds – or thousands in the case of the Katamon Shtiblach – pass through any given shul every day. Especially, in our Anglo-Jerusalem, where there are tourists and visitors from abroad, there has been discussion as to whether shuls are doing enough to protect us from corona.
I did a tour of several Anglo shuls this past Shabbat to see what action was being taken.
The Katamon Shtiblach had the main doors wide open and signs up warning people to keep to the guidelines of the Health Ministry. Shir Hadash on Emek, Beit Knesset Hanassi in Rehavia and the Emek Learning Center (ELC) along Emek Refaim, also had signs up with clear directives as to who could and couldn’t enter.
At shuls I popped into – including Nitzanim, Eretz Chemdah, Shir Hadash and the Emek Learning Center (ELC) – there was extra handwashing soap available and at Shir Hadash on Emek, the kiddush food was distributed in paper cups, to avoid contact.
At Shir Hadash in Talbiya, Rabbi Ian Pear advised those who were in the vulnerable categories and nervous, not to come to shul. There was also a second Zachor reading outside for those who felt uncomfortable indoors.
Before Shabbat, shuls including, Nitzanim, Shir Hadash, Eretz Chemdah and the ELC sent out emails with directives, requesting that people take extra precautions in shul. The Nitzanim email read: “We are all experiencing a situation which we have never faced before and it is our responsibility as individuals and as a congregation to listen to the instructions of the Ministry of Health. We have members of our community who are ‘high risk’ and as an institution we cannot risk their health or anyone’s health. Accordingly, the Vaad requests that all congregants abide by the instructions and guidelines of the Health Ministry including refraining from handshaking, hugging and kissing.”
I CERTAINLY felt that shuls were doing their best, but what do the locals say?
• Dr. Anna Donen told In Jerusalem, “I’m really reassured with what I saw at the Shtiblach – the signs by the doors, as well as the messages we got on our minyan’s email and WhatsApp group with guidelines. I feel that shuls are doing what they can in these difficult circumstances.”
• Mimi Borowich Milstein said, “I was very impressed with how Shir Hadash on Emek are handling the coronavirus. They had notices and disinfectant at the entrance of the synagogue and also made announcements of how to adhere to the protocol. Then, while wearing gloves, the heads of the synagogue portioned out the kiddush food into small portions and asked people to take their portion and step away from the table. Even the kids’ snacks were portioned out, since children usually grab everything with their hands. Sadly, they postponed (but not canceled) their Purim party and they have even offered alternative megillah readings for those in quarantine by listening to the shul’s megillah reading by phone.”
• Dr. Walter Wasser said, “If it comes to it, I think shuls certainly could safeguard their communities more effectively. For instance, we can put infrared or ultrasound sensors by the entrance to our shuls, which would check if people have temperatures. We could find the funding. Apart from those in quarantine-following guidelines, I just can’t think of what more we can do while continuing our routine – which includes, of course, coming to shul. One thing we need to do, and I’m being serious, is stopping the meshulachim (charity collectors) who run in and out of shul all day, from coming in to shuls. Sure, rabbis should remind people who are sick not to come to shul, but that’s also common sense.”
• Miriam Gold, a professional organizer, asserted, “I would hope that rabbis would not have to specifically have to tell their congregants to not come to shul. If they think they may be at risk of spreading corona and if someone who should be in quarantine asks their rabbi what to do, I would expect the rabbi to say ‘Stay home.’ My concern is more for haredim and ‘anti-vaxers’ who may feel that it’s all in God’s hands and put others at risk.
• Alan Lurie said, “The community has not got a handle on it, and I don’t think rabbis know what to be saying – but how should they know? Certainly for the elderly or weak, the shul could be a dangerous place if precautions aren’t taken. On the other hand, it’s very important not for us to fall into a state of panic – the rabbis need to help prevent this. Rabbis should support their shuls’ need in enforcing the basic guidelines such as: If sick – not coming, refraining from shaking hands, keeping windows open and keeping away if you have been to affected countries, like Italy.”
THEN IT was the rabbis’ turn. What do they feel they can do? Is it their responsibility? In Jerusalem spoke with a number of local rabbis to hear what they had to say.
• Rabbi Hillel Sermoneta of the Italian shul on Hillel Street, noted, “We are taking precautions – more than other shuls – to protect ourselves. We are following the advice of the authorities and Health Ministry - anyone returning from Italy must stay in quarantine and we are careful to remind people to do so. We currently have three members of the shul in quarantine and are ensuring they are being provided for.
“It’s very important for me, the rabbi, to not to add to the panic. The role of a rabbi, especially here in the corona case, is to listen to people and calm them down. It is not my role to give any form of medical advice – I simply don’t know any more than anyone else. My job as a rabbi is to ensure people behave in a responsible way. We are passing on medical directives and taking every precaution, while at the same time, carrying on as best we can with services and social events.
“This virus has ruined many people’s businesses, vacations and family smachot. We must be very sensitive to this and pray this crisis will be over soon.”
• Rabbi Shai Finkelstein, spiritual leader of Nitzanim, said, “Every individual has the moral and religious responsibility to follow the guidelines of the Health Ministry of for their own sake and for the sake of the community. The community should show sympathy and empathy to the individuals who are in quarantine, reach out to them and support them. As people of faith, we should increase our prayers and Torah learning for the merit of all people.”
With regard to the responsibility of rabbis, Finkelstein said, “As community leaders, we should encourage our communities to be aware of their responsibilities as individuals to themselves and to their community. We need to understand the fear and the feelings of loneliness of those who are quarantined. This is a time for our community to spread more kindness, increase our commitment to prayer and Torah and unite all humanity in fighting the virus and bringing light and hope to the world.”
• Rabbi Azarya Berzon, head of the ELC, said, “Taking care of one’s health is a fundamental principal in Jewish Law and this would mean that with regard to corona, rabbis do have an obligation to guide their congregations to follow official guidelines and to take extra precautions with regards to handwashing, etc.”
• Rabbi Shalom Myers at the ELC added, “We are taking every precaution, as we do have elderly people here. Visitors from abroad have been requested to follow the Health Ministry guidelines and we have backed this up both by emails and a notice by the door. We had a special speaker here, Dr. Moshe Feldman, from Hadassah Ein Kerem, who advised people as how to protect themselves against Corona.”
• Rabbi Dov Kidron of the Katamon Shtiblach said, “We need to be responsible and follow what the government and authorities say. It’s a question of health and not Jewish law. We are commanded to look after ourselves. It’s equally dangerous for rabbis to cause panic – rabbis are looked up to especially at times like this, and we need to behave responsibly, with caution.”
• Rabbi Dr. Aaron Adler of Ohel Nechama said, “My policy is to follow the guidelines of the Health Ministry. As of yet, they have not given any specific instructions to synagogues, apart from instructing those coming from Italy and affected countries to stay in quarantine. Of course, it’s common sense not to come to shul if you are not well, but that has always been the case. We need to do everything humanly possible, but there is a limit. In life, you need to take reasonable risks – not more. My role of a rabbi is to be a calming influence – the rabbi standing up in shul and giving detailed advice about corona, is taking things too far and may cause hysteria.”
BOTH FROM my walk around this past Shabbat and from speaking to locals, there is clearly a feeling in the community that our rabbis and shuls are doing what they can in these challenging circumstances. The rabbis I spoke with all seemed to say that apart from ensuring their shuls follow the Health Ministry guidelines and common sense, they see their role in terms of calming people down and providing emotional strength.
I pray, like everyone else, that a solution to this terrible virus will be found soon and all the suffering and disruption will end.