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An Emergency Coalition, Overseas Aid Groups Fight for the Vulnerable, a YU Rabbi’s Lenient Passover Ruling
Coronavirus 2020

An Emergency Coalition, Overseas Aid Groups Fight for the Vulnerable, a YU Rabbi’s Lenient Passover Ruling

A digital sign is displayed on March 25, 2020 in New York City. ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images
A digital sign is displayed on March 25, 2020 in New York City. ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

The Jewish Week introduces “The Stream: What’s Going On In NYC This Week — Online.” The Stream will be updated with new events and online resources regularly throughout the coronavirus crisis.

Eight major Jewish organizations, led by The Jewish Federations of North America, have formed an emergency coalition to help the Jewish community “collectively respond rapidly and effectively to the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on Jewish life.” Its top priorities will be to identify and share the details about short- and long-term interruption of service to the Jewish community, obtain public and private financial aid to ensure Jewish institutions can continue to provide critical services, leverage each member organization’s resources, and support Jewish communal professionals who have been impacted by layoffs or reduction of work.

“Working together and collectively we can achieve more than any one of us can do alone,” said Mark Wilf, chair of the Board of Trustees of JFNA. “We are all being challenged by this crisis to sustain Jewish communal life in North America and it is heartwarming to know we are empowering and supporting each other to sustain Jewish life and the work we all do to help others at this critical time.”

The coalition, which will seek to assess the pandemic’s impact on the millions of people served by more than 1,000 member organizations, includes BBYO, Foundation for Jewish Camp, Hillel International, JCC Association of North America, Moishe House, the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies, and Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.

In a sign of the pressure on nonprofits, New York’s shuttered Tenement Museum laid off 13 full-time employees (out of 66) and told another 40 not to report to work, although the latter group will receive health insurance coverage through the end of June, Morris Vogel, president of the Museum since 2008, told The Jewish Week’s Sandee Brawarski.

The FBI’s New York office warned local police agencies that white supremacists have been encouraging followers who have contracted the disease to intentionally spread the virus among Jews. The Jewish Week’s Stewart Ain reports.

Jewish groups focusing on global needs are also adjusting to the threats posed by the pandemic.

HIAS, the Jewish immigration advocacy group, has announced activities in 16 countries “to prevent, mitigate, and reduce the spread of COVID-19 among refugee communities.” The agency is providing refugees “with critical information about the virus, how to access their rights to medical care, and how to remain safe. We are also finding ways to remotely deliver our services.”

“Here in the United States, we will continue speaking out against any attempts to blame migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers for the spread of coronavirus,” HIAS stated. “We will also help fight any attempts to use the healthcare needs of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers as a way to target them and work to ensure that healthcare facilities remain as immigration enforcement-free zones.”

Among its recent activities, HIAS staff members have engaged pro bono legal assistance for detained clients in New York, Maryland, and along the U.S.-Mexico border; provided remote case-management services at 17 resettlement sites across the U.S.; and provided emergency cash and voucher assistance in Kenya, Ecuador, Aruba, and Costa Rica and other countries.

The Joint Distribution Committee, the overseas humanitarian organization, has designed a variety of new programs, in partnership with the Jewish Federations of North America, to respond to “the acute humanitarian needs emerging from COVID-19 pandemic.”

The JDC’s activities on behalf of “for the most vulnerable, including the poor and elderly,” include distribution of supplemental emergency medicine, medical care, and food in the former Soviet Union, delivery of essential care services and meals in 180 locations in Israel to quarantined and homebound elderly, initiating hotlines in Europe, Asia and North Africa, providing food, medicine and monetary assistance to the needy elderly Jews in Latin America, and “training key organizations and institutions in the life-saving practices of hand washing, proper hygiene, and social distancing” in Ethiopia.

And the American Jewish World Service is assuring its grantees in the developing world that during the crisis AJWS will make every planned grant and that partners will not lose funding from the organization. AJWS is particularly concerned that in countries with ineffective health systems and unequal access to health care, women and girls, refugees, sex workers and others seeking healthcare are particularly vulnerable. AJWS is also hoping to fight the spread of misinformation in countries whose governments lack transparency.

“From our decades of work, we know that the most vulnerable communities across the world will face the most serious impacts of this pandemic, because at times of crisis, the human rights of oppressed and marginalized people are nearly always further violated,” writes Sam Wolthuis, the organization’s  director of humanitarian response & international operations.

Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University and a prominent expert on Jewish law, has issued a halachic, or Jewish legal, ruling that allows the use of usually forbidden electronic devices on the Passover holiday if it means preserving the physical and mental health of an individual in isolation.

With families sheltering at home and separated from friends and relatives during the holidays, Rabbi Schachter’s ruling allows family members to reach out to vulnerable persons on the holy days and “speak on the phone or use the internet by leaving a connection open” before the holy day begins.

Observant Jews are normally forbidden from using electronic devices on Shabbat and “yom tovim,” or holy days. The ruling is limited to persons with a psychological condition that could lead to suicide if they were “not able to communicate or speak with family members.”

Schachter also ruled that if someone is physically ill, alone and in deteriorating health, “the family must remain in contact using electronic devices with that person over the course of Yom Tov.” In addition, “if a parent who is ill lives outside of Israel and the parent has a non-Jewish aide,” children in Israel may call the aide and check in on the parent. The ruling applies when it is a yom tov outside of Israel, and not yom tov in Israel.


The official count of people diagnosed with the disease reached 2,495 on Thursday. Tens of thousands of people tuned in on Wednesday to watch dozens of worshipers pray at the Western Wall for the end of the “plague” and the speedy recovery of the sick, the Jerusalem Post reports.  The viewers participated via the Western Wall Heritage website and the Kol Halashon website.

The service was kept small to comply with Health Ministry guidelines.

Israel’s police force reported that it had shut down 55 businesses that were breaking lockdown orders; opened 135 cases against people who have broken their quarantine; started 36 cases against people who disseminated fake coronavirus news; and visited 31,841 people to check that they are adhering to isolation, including 6,147 on Wednesday alone.


Torah Umesorah, the national association of Jewish day schools, will sponsor a phone-in session for educators offering guidance for dealing with the current coronavirus crisis on Thursday at 9 p.m. The program will feature Dr. David Rosmarin, who will discuss “Adjusting Your Own Mask First.” The call-in number is (978) 990-5000, the access code is 407335. Questions should be submitted by 11 a.m. Thursday to

American Jewish University in Los Angeles will hold a livestreamed conversation with New York Times columnist Bari Weiss on “Jewish Responsibility in the Time of Plague” on Thursday at 10 a.m. (New York time). The school’s first B’Yachad Together Online Conversation Series will also feature AJU President Jeffrey Herbst.

Ron Wolfson, professor of education at American Jewish University and author of “The Relational Judaism Handbook” has published an article outlining tips for people who plan to conduct “virtual” seders, on Zoom or other online platforms this year.

Leaders of the Conservative/Masorti movement in Israel have compiled resources for preparing for and observing Passover “in this time of coronavirus.”  Among the offerings are:

The Aleph Beta educational organization has prepared a listening guide for members of the Jewish community, especially those in self-isolation, who will be observing Passover during this time of coronavirus crisis. The guide includes information on such subjects as compiling a shopping list, recipe ideas, appropriate utensils and appliances, and directions for koshering items.

Repair the World, a Jewish community service organization, has prepared several online Passover resources. They include a new list of Four Questions, general information on the organization’s activities and volunteering opportunities.

Amy Klein, author of The Trying Game: Get Through Fertility Treatment and Get Pregnant Without Losing Your Mind (Penguin/Random House), will be among the speakers in a virtual Infertility Awareness (PRE)Shabbat seminar to be held on March 26 at 9 p.m. Join on Zoom and Facebook Live. Klein’s essay on infertility and the pandemic at The Jewish Week.

UJA-Federation of New York has compiled a guide to help the Jewish community find advice, resources and volunteer opportunities for learning during the virus outbreak. UJA and the Jewish Board also have listings of volunteer opportunities.

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