Leading the NYC Jewish community during the pandemic

A conversation with Rabbi Shlomo Farhi and Rabbi Ariel Mizrahi of the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue

The writer flanked by Rabbi Shlomo Farhi (left) and Rabbi Ariel Mizrahi (right) of the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue in New York City (photo credit: Courtesy)
The writer flanked by Rabbi Shlomo Farhi (left) and Rabbi Ariel Mizrahi (right) of the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue in New York City
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At the height of the current pandemic, the world as we know it has literally been shut down. With the spread of COVID-19, sports stadiums like Madison Square Garden, theaters on Broadway, shopping malls and countless other businesses in every sector have been hit harder than ever.
Even though we are living in a day and age of great technological advances in which we may have believed that science, innovation and medical breakthroughs were the answer to all, we are finding mankind cannot control destiny.
As a Jewish person who prays every day, I have been honored to be a devoted congregant of the Edmond J. Safra Congregation in Manhattan. Safra was a Lebanese-born Jew who rose to prominence in the banking industry and supported a remarkable and diverse amount of institutions and charities during his lifetime.
Through the dedication and efforts of his wife, Lily Safra, the synagogue was completed in December 2002. Since March of 2003, the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue has become a prominent social, cultural and educational center. Leading the Congregation today are head Rabbi Shlomo Farhi and assistant Rabbi Ariel Mizrahi.
Throughout the pandemic, they have worked tirelessly with Haron Shohet (the gabbai of the shul) in making sure the synagogue has kept to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to create a safe and warm environment. They truly embody that when it comes to hearing words of Torah, there is no such thing as “love of Torah distancing.”
We as a Jewish community are being prevented from fully uniting together by an enemy that the human eye can not see.  From a Torah perspective, how could this pandemic occur?
Rabbi Mizrahi: From a Torah perspective, it can be understood that Hashem did not just allow this pandemic to happen but may have wanted it to happen to teach us a strong fundamental lesson about the world and ourselves. To answer your question, there is an easy answer and a hard answer. The easy answer is that Hashem is trying to wake us up. Not necessarily in a scary type of way but rather that He wants the world to be somewhere specific in the best of ways and has a master plan, in which there are opportunities that we as mankind must reach in to and I think we can only get there through this pandemic. Hashem is trying to get us to reach and maximize our potentials. After every storm there is always a rainbow and Hashem is having us go through this experience to get there. What is the lesson that we are all supposed to learn on an individual level is a much more complicated question to delve into. Everyone has to ask themselves what they on their own can take away from this and what opportunities can I learn from this? How can I maximize this pandemic and instead of a challenge make this as an opportunity? If everyone is honest with themselves they can dig deep and find that answer.
As you lead our congregation and the greater Jewish community during these trying times, what are some words of strength and encouragement that can preserve their faith and commitment?
Rabbi Farhi: One of the most difficult things a leader has to do is empathize and understand where people are coming from. In truth, if one was to take a look at Klal Yisrael’s history, they would realize that whether it be a pandemic or no pandemic, protests, looting, economic uncertainty and so on, they would see that we are doing better in 2020 as a Jewish people than we have done for 99.99% of our history in Exile. Whether or not you like one candidate over the other in this past US Election, neither of them is Hitler, Stalin, Pharaoh, Titus or the nightmare the Nation of Israel faced during the Spanish Inquisition or Bogdan Chmiellnicki. We as a people sometimes forget how indestructible we are and when we believe that our future, our finances and our welfare are in the hands of whoever is leading during that current time in History, we really are not paying attention. I remember my great-grandfather whose door the Nazi’s kicked down on Kristallnacht. He made it out of Germany with his wife and son, eventually they were able to rebuild their family here in America. I have memories of the Seder night, him swinging the cup of wine in his hand singing “Ve’hi She’amda.” This was what our forefathers stood up for and in every generation they try to destroy us and Hashem saves us. In every generation there’s another name, another face, another nation or terrorist organization. In 2020, it was molecular, but ultimately our faith teaches that everything is in the hands of Hashem. So it’s a leader and a rabbi’s job to be able to sense, empathize and feel people’s fears and worries and almost communicate to them in the abstract way like you aren’t where you think you are. Yes, you are given liberties but you are still being held by your invisible captor. It’s a tremendous example of what people are going through now. While we are in this little bubble and we are seeing things through a more short and immediate sense, it’s very tough. But what if we could make one phone call to our grandparents in Germany, Syria, Baghdad, Russia (from behind the Iron Curtain)? They would ask us, do you have food to eat? Can you practice your religion? Are you being persecuted? When the answer to all of these things is no, we sometimes have to reset our counter and realize that we are blessed. Yes, we need to take these things seriously but not so seriously than they are larger than us as a people and our track record as a Jewish people’s indestructible nature.
We are all creatures of habit. Our schedules consist of going to specific locations, working, attending events and now that is gone for the time being. Please explain the jump in spiritual growth that you have seen in the community.
Rabbi Mizrahi: I definitely agree that having a schedule is very important, having a regiment and some type of order in our lives is very necessary and important and being creatures of habit is part of the game. When this began, people were out of their schedule and there was no day to day life anymore, there was no work, no parties, no restaurants, no sports to watch, your favorite football game and so on. Your life as a whole was put on hold. Most people had a very hard time adjusting and had to ask themselves ‘what do I do now?’ Part of our job as rabbis of a community was to say how are we going to be there for the kahal and community, how do we come in together and create a new schedule, a new order. We have an amazing opportunity right now through the internet, through social media, through Zoom to be able to stay connected through Torah with classes that never existed before and to build a new schedule. Now that this pandemic is here, how can we look at this as not just a challenge but an opportunity? How can we take this to the next step and use this invisible enemy for us and instead of against us? People have called me to say that they appreciate that we can provide Torah classes now more than ever. People are more spiritual now more than ever and they are allowing this opportunity to put themselves more in touch with their inner essence and are able to unleash and unlock their inner potential now more than ever. This may be a schedule that we have to adhere to, it may have not been what I ideally wanted but now it is our job to make the most of it.
What opportunities can we as a Jewish nation find from this current breaking of the cycle? How can a community and humanity as a whole use this pandemic as an opportunity to reevaluate what we prioritize most in life?
Rabbi Farhi: The amazing thing about having faith – emunah – like that is that it brings you to question number two. If everything is in Hashem’s hands, then why are we where we are? One of the beautiful things about being a Jew is our connection to our prayers. We say “Ha’Tov Ki Chalu Rachamecha” – Hashem, you were good because your mercy never runs out. In every situation, a person really needs to be looking for Hashem’s mercies. To try and find why Hashem chose to do this and in what way is that good for me and my family. How does a person see a path forward to survive? The second question asks how do we not just survive but thrive to see the hand of Hashem guiding us not just to survive and break even at zero but rather to be better off than before. The Torah says to “Save me from my brother, from Esav.” Rashi famously says that Yaakov was cognizant of two different challenges of remaining Jewish and Yaakov. One challenge was miyad Esav when they try to destroy us. The second level of destruction can happen to the Jewish spirit from destructive forces that aren’t there. When a wicked person throws his arm around you like a brother and acts like no one is trying to hurt you. Since the Holocaust, we ended up losing to assimilation far more than we lost to Esav. This is not just in the physical terms but also spiritually. Spiritually that is what has happened to our generation. We learn a pathway forward when we value things like our health. How precious life is to just walk outside and breathe in the air without a mask? Did we thank Hashem for air before the era of Corona? People complain about going to work and now they pray to go to work just to get out of the house. They want that structure back again. All of a sudden these things that we saw as a bother, curses or irrelevant shoot up in the spectrum of importance. If one had all of the money in the world during New York City’s crises there is nothing that they could have done to save their father. The best medical treatment, the best doctor, the best hospital room money could buy wouldn’t have been the focus, rather appreciating the few extra precious moments of life. I think that’s how we grow from moments like these and we realize our truest values.
The writer received his undergraduate degree in business (cum laude) from Yeshiva University and his MBA with double distinction from Long Island University. He is a financial adviser who resides in New York City, and is involved in Israel based and Jewish advocacy organizations