Concern over swine flu in Jewish communities from Mexico to Texas

Keeping kosher said to be no guarantee of immunity, although infections have yet to be reported.

flu masked family 248.88 (photo credit: )
flu masked family 248.88
(photo credit: )
As the swine flu outbreak continued to trigger hysteria the world over on Monday, Jews in Mexico City - the epicenter of the virus - dismissed concerns that it would become a pandemic and told The Jerusalem Post the fear was "disproportionate." "I have heard of no one from the Mexico City Jewish community being affected by the influenza," Rabbi Yosef Mayzlesh, a Chabad rabbi who lives there told the Post. "I don't know for sure, there's some 50,000 Jews who live here, but I haven't heard about it." The main problem, according to Mayzlesh, is the panic that has taken over Mexico City. There have been at least 103 virus-related deaths in Mexico, and hundreds more are feared to be infected. "Everything is shut down," he said. "Shops aren't open, schools are shut down and the streets are completely empty. Last Shabbat, many people didn't come to synagogue, and I'm talking about people who always come to synagogue. They just didn't show up. After Shabbat, I called them to make sure nothing happened. "'No,' they told me. 'We're just scared to leave the house.' A lot of people have just packed up and left town." The Jewish schools have been closed, although a few did open for a few hours in the afternoon for Torah study, Mayzlesh said. "We just got back from [Pessah] vacation, and here it's like we're on vacation again," he said. "I'm not from Mexico. But I've been here for many years, and I have to tell you, sometimes it seems like in Mexico, they will use any excuse to take another vacation. It's part of the culture." "I'm walking down the street right now," he said. "And it's completely empty. They've even decided to cancel the Independence Day ceremony outside the Israeli Embassy, which we were pretty sure they were going to hold as scheduled. Sure, it's true that the Jews here are somewhat separated from the rest of the city here - they have their own schools, and they don't rely on public transportation. But here they're panicking just like everyone else. "A few people have asked me, 'Should we leave?' And I've told them, I'm not a doctor or a professor, I don't really know about these things, but I've told them no," Mayzlesh said. "I can tell you without a doubt that the Mexico City Jewish community is one of the strongest, safest communities outside of Israel," Yosef Kamri, who was born in Mexico City but lives in Jerusalem, told the Post. "My family there has told me that they're not really feeling the effects of the virus, because they're closed off from the rest of the city, but they're still scared. They don't really have contact with non-Jewish Mexicans, and while I guess that adds to the anti-Semitism there, well, you see, it works. They're safe." Karmi echoed Mayzlesh's comments about the level of fear among Mexico City Jews possibly being higher than the actual threat. "I know a lot of people there are thinking about leaving until it blows over," he said. "As a matter of fact, my close friend is arriving in Israel tomorrow from Mexico City, but he's coming from New York. I know they got all kinds of tests when they entered the US, but maybe I should call the Health Ministry to see what I need to do." The fear seemed to be confined to the Mexican capital on Monday. In the northwest of the country, in the Baja Peninsula resort town of Cabo San Lucas, Chabad Rabbi Benzion Hershcovich told the Post he felt far away from the virus. "There's been nothing at all in Cabo," Hershcovich said. "And from what I understand, nothing even remotely nearby. We've seen people walking around with masks on, but that's it. There's no fear, no panic. There's a lot of retired people here, a lot of timeshare owners, and some Israelis, at least those are some of the people our Chabad House attracts. But overall there's about 100 Jews who live here altogether, and none of them have said anything to me, and I haven't seen or heard anything here that's cause for concern. After all, we're farther away from Mexico City than Texas." In Texas, Jewish community members also downplayed the threat, saying there was little cause for panic, and a feeling that they were prepared to deal with whatever came their way. "We've had two cases of the flu in Guadalupe County, near San Antonio, in central Texas," said Hillary Miller, a family physician in Austin who is also a member of that city's Jewish community. "We've told people that if they're feeling flu-like symptoms, to stay home, and if they feel that they need to be seen, to call in, and we'll see them." As far as a Jewish response to the flu, Miller said it was hard to say. "Even those who think, 'Well, I keep kosher, I don't eat pork, so this outbreak isn't going to affect me,' they're wrong. This has nothing to do with eating. The outbreak began with people who worked closely with pigs, but from that point on, it's spread from person to person. That said, this isn't Mexico City. The Jewish community is very much integrated into the rest of society, and if there's an outbreak, Jews and non-Jews will both have cause for concern."