As several states are moving to reopen their economies even as the number of daily coronavirus cases is still rising, Orthodox Jewish leaders are taking a strong stand on the side of caution.
In contrast to reports of some Orthodox Jews in this country and Israel flouting social distancing regulations, and following weeks of what some observers considered tepid responses, national organizations and several local Orthodox rabbis have issued directives to their members stressing that social distancing and self-isolation are necessary under Jewish law as well as under secular rules and sound public health policy.
Among the Orthodox institutions issuing strong public rulings are the Orthodox Union (which issued its guidelines on May 8), Agudath Israel of America (also May 8) and local rabbinical boards and congregations (which took the same step last week within a few days of each other).
The Orthodox leaders have acted, said Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel, because of “the simple fact that Jews are enjoined by halacha to guard their health.” Some of the statements are in response to reports that some worshippers are holding outdoor or “porch” services and other private minyans in defiance of previous directives.
Last month, Eli Shlezinger, a journalist for the Behadrei Haredim news site in Israel, wrote that members of the so-called ultra-Orthodox community were originally reluctant to abide by social distancing guidelines. “The Haredi public listens only to their rabbis,” he wrote, and “[t]he rabbis didn’t really know what was happening or how dangerous it was. In order to get the Haredi community to do something, you need to get to the rabbis to explain to them, by way of professional experts in a respectful way and very clearly, what the picture is and what the danger is. They didn’t do this.”
A recent sign of this communal attitude towards social distancing: Several hundred residents of Jerusalem’s charedi Mea Shearim neighborhood crowded the area’s narrow streets Monday night to celebrate the Lag B’Omer holiday, ignoring a government ban on celebrations.
In the U.S., the new unified Orthodox stance appears to have ended a split between some members of the Modern Orthodox and charedi Orthodox communities over compliance with social distancing regulations. The statements also suggest a divide between Jewish groups — including both Orthodox and non-Orthodox congregations — and the Trump administration, which is encouraging a return to in-person services as a statement of religious freedom.
In a visit last Friday with clergy in Iowa, whose governor is leaving it up to churches to decide when to reopen, Vice President Pence spoke about the importance of resuming in-person religious services and calling the issue a question of “religious liberty.” In response, Rabbi David Kaufman of the Reform Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Des Moines told Pence it was still too early to fill the pews. “It’s inadvisable at the moment, especially with rising case counts in the communities in which most of our congregations are across the state,” the rabbi told the vice president.
Rabbi Kaufman said more testing for the virus or for antibodies, as well as a vaccine, would be needed for a return to totally normal worship.
Kaufman’s response is in line with guidance from leaders of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructing Judaism movements, and now most major Orthodox leaders as well.
Reopening houses of worship was also at the center of a clash between the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The administration shelved the agency’s detailed guidelines for the reopening of schools, restaurants and “communities of faith” in part because officials thought the restrictions too burdensome for houses of worship. Evangelical Christians in particular are a key constituency of President Trump.
In a webcast briefing last week with OU leadership, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, appeared to echo the CDC’s guidelines. He urged a cautious approach and advised Jewish worshippers to phase in communal prayer as local governments lift coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
“The kind of social interactions which is the core of the beauty of your culture has unfortunately led to a higher risk,” Dr. Fauci said. “If you said, for the time being, ‘How about once a day and five days a week as opposed to three times a day, seven days a week,’ if you could phase that part in,” that would be a good idea. “I don’t want to be presumptuous to know what that would mean to you from a spiritual standpoint.”
He also said risk mitigation should be considered for the High Holidays in September. “As we get to the fall, there will almost certainly be virus,” Dr. Fauci said.
“Everyone is worried about Rosh HaShanah,” Rabbi Adam Mintz, founder of Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim, a small Modern Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side, told The Jewish Week in a phone interview. “We need to educate our community that Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur will not be like a regular Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. That’s going to be very jarring for a lot of people.”
Rabbi Mintz said every congregation in his neighborhood has closed, to comply with government guidelines. Whether or not to close “really hasn’t been an issue.”
When will the synagogues reopen?
“It’s possible that the frumer [charedi, or fervently Orthodox] shuls may open before the Modern Orthodox shuls,” he said, adding that his congregation, not a member of the Orthodox Union, “will look to the OU for direction.”
The Orthodox Union’s guidelines specify a two-week waiting period for resumption of group activities “after the local governments have allowed public gatherings of more than ten persons, and have not seen upticks in disease.” While the Agudah guidelines call for a similar 14-day waiting period, OU synagogues are considered more likely to follow the 14-day guideline, Rabbi Mintz said.
The OU document, issued in partnership with the Rabbinical Council of America, presents 13 reopening “principles” that center on the resumption of communal davening, but do not “imply that any reopening should be done at this point.”
The document calls for a gradual process, with social distancing in synagogues. It discourages outdoor minyanim, and states that people over 65 and other vulnerable people should be “at the least highly discouraged” from attending communal worship services.
Agudath Israel’s “roadmap” urges measures like masks and distancing and states that “no [communal] activity may begin until governmental and rabbinic authorities deem this activity safe and allowable.” Rabbinic authorities, the document states, “have assured us that the same Torah that idealizes Torah and tefillah [prayer] in a large shul with many in attendance under normal circumstances now requires us to do so in a way that vigorously preserves our health and the health of those around us.”
“I don’t know of any opposition among Agudah-affiliated shuls or their members to social distancing. The community is very cautious,” Rabbi Shafran said. “The [well-publicized] funerals that have been attended by crowds represent a tiny part of a small part of the chasidic [community].” He noted a recent funeral in Brooklyn that drew an angry reaction from Mayor Bill de Blasio had been coordinated ahead of time with police. “The vast majority of funerals in the charedi world — and, tragically, there have been many — were attended only by a few relatives and chevra kadisha personnel.”
In Israel, said Rabbi Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, chairman and founder of the country’s ZAKA voluntary emergency service organization, “It took time for a part of the community to understand the severity of the matter.” While “there’s a few small communities that aren’t obeying the community” because “they think it’s a Zionist attack on the charedim,” around “95 percent of charedim are obeying and the rabbis said to observe the rules.”
‘A Fatal Mistake’
Local Orthodox leaders in this country are warning their communities to resist the desire to relax safeguards.
“That time has not yet arrived … the only way to avoid potential spread of the coronavirus is by maintaining strict social distancing and consistently following protocols such as wearing masks in public areas,” wrote rabbinical leaders of the strict Orthodox yeshiva community in Passaic-Clifton, New Jersey.
Rabbi Hershel Billet, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Woodmere, L.I., last week sent a long email message to his congregants about necessary safety precautions. He later clarified that he wrote the letter “because there have been many minyanim in the Five Towns in violation of our community standards.”
In his letter, widely shared, Rabbi Billet emphasized that the obligation to preserve one’s health outweighs the obligation to pray in a minyan, or prayer quorum, even when a person is saying Kaddish for a family member who has died. Protecting the sanctity of life is “THE OVERRIDING choice of Halacha,” or Jewish law, he wrote. He declared his message is in accordance with “OU standards — the mainstream Orthodox community has been responsible all along. The problem is that when people forget [to comply with social distancing regulations] … it can be a fatal mistake.”
“You can pray even if you don’t have a minyan,” the rabbi, who closed his synagogue the week of Purim, told The Jewish Week.
Rabbi Reuven Fink of the Young Israel of New Rochelle, the first synagogue to get hit hard by the virus, forwarded Rabbi Billet’s letter to his own congregants, writing that he “strongly agrees with everything in the letter.”