On Rosh HaShanah, Jews usually go to a nearby body of water for tashlich, turn to the heavens and symbolically cast away their sins.
This year some Jews looked to the skies first and stayed home.
Several Jewish organizations and city officials urged High Holy Days worshippers to use caution about approaching shores during the ongoing encephalitis alert and the series of insecticide sprayings, from helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, by the Department of Health. Sunday’s spraying (tashlich traditionally does not take place on Shabbat, the first day of yom tov this year) was in late afternoon/early evening, when many Jews take prayer book and crumbs in hand.
In Queens, ground zero of the St. Louis encephalitis outbreak, fewer Jews did tashlich on Sunday.
"As soon as we heard there was a problem, we advised people to take every precaution," says Manny Behar, executive director of the Queens Jewish Community Council, which arranges police protection and a cleared path annually for tashlichers at Willow Lake and Meadow Lake in Flushing Meadow Park, between Kew Gardens Hills and Forest Hills/Rego Park neighborhoods.
The shores of the two lakes, the only major inland bodies of water popular among the tashlich crowd (and among the disease-bearing mosquitoes) had been sprayed almost a week earlier. "We spent weeks preparing ourselves from terrorists," in the wake of the recent JCC shootings near Los Angeles, Behar said, "only to find our problem was mosquitoes." While the insecticide sprayed poses no danger to people, according to health officials, the city advised residents to stay indoors and turn off air conditioning during spraying hours.
"One does not have to say tashlich on Rosh HaShanah," Behar said. It can be recited until Hashanah Rabba, the sixth day of Sukkot.
Behar said he was among a few people who did decide to do tashlich at Willow Lake. "When I was there, there were about 50 people. At that time [in other years] you would easily have had 500 people. I think it was a wise decision that people stayed away."
Rabbis in several synagogues, Agudath Israel of America and Hatzalah volunteer ambulance corps issued similar notices.
Rabbi David Algaze, spiritual leader of Havurat Yisrael in Forest Hills, cancelled tashlich. "We can go another day," he said.
"None of the people I know, went," said a member of Young Israel of Forest Hills. "They were concerned: with good reason."
"I didn’t see as many people as normal walking down," said Michael Wittert, a member of Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. He plans to go to a nearby beach with his family on Sunday, the eve of Yom Kippur.
Encephalitis is a viral disease characterized by inflammation of the brain.
Since Sept. 2, when the outbreak was first identified, three city residents have died and eight other cases have been confirmed, city officials said. Sixty-five additional cases of illness were being investigated as encephalitis related.
Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, a community activist in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, said one doctor was inundated Friday morning with complaints from patients suffering side effects of the insecticide.
Just one problem, the physician told the callers: "They didn’t spray yet."