Coronavirus leaves Jewish communities without Jews for Passover

Just like coronavirus has affected almost every single person, so too has the Internet response.

A SUGGESTION for the Seder: Leave an empty chair at the table for the person who cannot attend, but at the empty place setting, includes items they would have brought. (photo credit: Courtesy)
A SUGGESTION for the Seder: Leave an empty chair at the table for the person who cannot attend, but at the empty place setting, includes items they would have brought.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbis, Jewish leaders and Jewish communities have constructively and creatively responded to crises enveloping their locales and societies for centuries. 
Jews know how to deal with adversity; we have been dealing with it for millennia. Jewish history is replete with responses to plagues. Given that we are only a few days away from celebrating Passover, the obvious and most appropriate plague takes us back to the time of Pharaoh and Egypt. But immediately after that, while in the desert, a plague struck the Israelites. The Book of Numbers describes that people were dying as they wandered, and then Moses instructed his brother, Aaron, to bring a fire pan with incense and the plague stopped.
It was called a miracle. Today there is no Moses today, no miracles. But there is a new plague. COVID-19 is threatening and changing all over lives.
For years I have been discussing changes in our global Jewish community and the new Jewish lifestyle that has emerged because of the ubiquitous and all-encompassing world of technology - especially the Internet. Never did I realize how prescient that was. Never did I imagine how impactful those changes would be and how Jewishly impactful technology would be, even for the ultra-Orthodox, haredi sector, where technological advances, especially the Internet are viewed with skepticism.
Just like coronavirus has affected almost every single person, so too has the Internet response.
When a cholera epidemic struck Europe in 1831, Rabbi Akiva Eiger issued a series of rulings that almost exactly set the model for rabbinic rulings being issued today. Almost 200 years ago he decreed that no more than 15 people be in synagogue at one time. He even asked local police to enforce that decree. Rabbi Eiger decided to expand the hours of synagogue prayer, starting very early in the day with rotating minyanim (prayer quorums), to make certain that only a few were allowed into the synagogue at any time. This Jewish leader, renowned and respected in his own community, earned acknowledgement from non-Jewish leaders for helping stem the tide of the epidemic.
A few years later, in 1848 in Vilna on the eve of Yom Kippur, the great Rabbi Israel Salanter hung up signs saying if someone was sick, they should not fast on Yom Kippur. To set an example for the community, Rabbi Salanter himself made kiddush and ate in public. He did not want the weak to be so embarrassed that they would endanger their lives and that they should, instead, eat on the fast day.
We also have a history of quarantine. While Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azoulai, known as the Chida, was travelling in 1774 to raise money for the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael, he was put into quarantine in Livorno, Italy. His quarantine lasted for 40 days. During that time he wrote one of the great books of Jewish historiography, Shem HaGedolim, the Book of Great Names, in which he listed great Jewish books and their authors.
Today again, the Jewish community is in crisis. We are dealing with it by turning our Jewish community into a virtual Jewish community. We are creating a community without buildings and building a community without people. As a community without walls and synagogues we are learning, day by day, how to deal with the new reality of Jewish communal life.
For the past few years I have posited that due to the greatness and creativity of the Internet, many Jews, and the number has been consistently growing, do not need traditional community structures. They receive information from an ever-growing number of websites. The quality of these websites varies.  Many are so savvy and creative and interactive that they became more attractive than traditional Jewish community organizations. 
Accessed at the convenience of the user, most are free and lead users to a multitude of other sites. The paths, the Jewish paths, seem endless and are dynamic for their users. These alternatives give people what the established Jewish community does not give. Best of all, you never need to leave your room. 
Today, many of us cannot leave our rooms. Coronavirus forces us to stay inside as synagogues, community centers and organizations are closed. 
Coronavirus has, more than I ever anticipated, forced almost every Jewish organization, if they want to remain vital, to join the Internet age, and not just with a static website that delivers times like a glorified calendar. Organizations are wrestling with new media and activities that can be offered online, learning that old-fashioned, face-to-face realities cannot be replicated online but must be reinvented.   
This is the new reality. We have become a Jewish community without people. 
While I once advocated this new form of Jewish community life, I now find that I miss the old ways. The fundamental business model of the old-fashioned Jewish community organization has been altered at the very core because of this crisis, and I want it back.
In many ways, change is for the better. It has catapulted synagogues and Jewish organizations into modern times, but I miss the interaction. As a regular synagogue attendee, I miss the interaction, the dialogue and the camaraderie. 
I hope that the creativity produced because of coronavirus will continue when this chapter in our lives is over and gone, but as an addition, not as a replacement. A Jewish community requires Jews to be present and counted.
The author is a political commentator. He hosts Thinking Out Loud on JBS TV. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern.