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Religious Life Transformed by Closure of Public Spaces
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Coronavirus 2020

Religious Life Transformed by Closure of Public Spaces

Six Orthodox groups issue joint statement shuttering ‘central fixtures’ of Jewish practice.

A couple wears face masks and surgical gloves as they walk in Central Park on March 22, 2020 in New York City. Kena Betancur / AFP via Getty Images
A couple wears face masks and surgical gloves as they walk in Central Park on March 22, 2020 in New York City. Kena Betancur / AFP via Getty Images

The closing of public Jewish institutions appeared to be nearly complete over the weekend, and the spread of coronavirus forced synagogues and organizations to find alternatives to even small public gatherings.

In a statement released Friday just hours ahead of Shabbat, leaders of six major American Orthodox Jewish organizations called on their members to follow social distancing rules, including limits on daily group prayers and weddings. The statement followed reports of continued large gatherings in some charedi Orthodox communities despite warnings about the spread of the coronavirus.

“We have taken the unprecedented and deeply distressing step of shuttering the central fixtures of our lives — our shuls, yeshivas and schools — and certainly to eliminate other gatherings,”  signed by the heads of Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox Union, the National Council of Young Israel, the Lakewood Vaad, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Rabbinical Alliance of America. “We have done so because as observant Jews we have an obligation to place supreme value on protecting human life.”

Rabbis from the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements in New Orleans conducted a joint Havdalah service online Saturday night, NOLA.com reports. The intrafaith service was “an example of how the danger posed by the coronavirus has rocked a key pillar of Jewish faith in the New Orleans area: community,” the site reports. New Orleans has one of the biggest concentrations of coronavirus diagnoses in the country.

Dozens of Orthodox rabbis and medical professionals in Florida have issued a public letter urging Jews “in no uncertain terms” not to travel to the state this year for Passover. “To all those from out of state considering spending Pesach here in Florida,” the letter says in bold, “it’s halachically prohibited and medically irresponsible to come.” Among the signatories is Sholom Lipskar, a prominent Chabad rabbi who has been diagnosed with the coronavirus.

J: Jewish News of Northern California reports that members of Urban Adamah, a Jewish farm in Berkeley that is a flagship site of the Jewish farm movement, are delivering fresh produce to seniors who are shut in their homes. “We’re taking care of between 30 and 40 households of elderly members, washed everything, bagged it and delivered it to my house, fully protected,” said Lorelai Kude, a member of Aquarian Minyan in the East Bay. “They harvested it wearing gloves and masks.”

Brandeis University has announced that it will not hold a graduation ceremony this spring. The historically Jewish university in Massachusetts is among the growing number of colleges calling off commencement ceremonies, leaving open the possibility that students might reconvene in May after studying remotely this spring.

Two Brooklyn-based organizations, the Flatbush Fund and Chasdei Lev, are offering financial assistance to members of the Flatbush community affected by the Covid-19 crisis. Elderly Flatbush residents can arrange to have essential items home delivered to them by calling (929) 322-3459. And the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition is offering free masks. A rabbi or physician should contact masks4klalyisroel@gmail.com.

The Jewish community in England is concerned about draft legislation that could allow government authorities to cremate victims of coronavirus, even against the express wishes of the deceased and their families, the Jerusalem Post reports. According to the proposed legislation, aimed at tackling the growing public health emergency, “Personal choice for body disposal will be respected as far as possible” but “where there is no suitable alternative (for example if safe storage limits were likely to be breached and out of area alternatives were not available), the power to direct may be used to direct whether a body is buried or cremated.” Cremation is strongly prohibited by Jewish law.

O Boticário, a Brazilian cosmetics giant owned by the billionaire son of Holocaust survivors, has donated to the city of Curitiba 1.7 tons of gel alcohol, which can be used as hand sanitizer, according to JTA. Miguel Krigsner, a Jewish biochemist and environmentalist, was born in La Paz to a Polish father and a German mother who fled the Nazi regime, Krigsner moved to Brazil with his family at 11. “Our essence is to be agents of transformation in everything we do. If we save a life, we save humanity. This is Judaism,” Krigsner said.

Meanwhile, in Israel …

More than 1,200 Israelis have been infected with coronavirus as of Monday morning, with the spike in the number of diagnoses likely tied to a sharp increase in the number of coronavirus tests being conducted – some 5,268 in the last 24 hours, Haaretz reports. And the unemployment rate there has risen to 16.5 percent, with over 500,000 people losing their jobs since the start of March, the Employment Service reports. Israel’s unemployment rate was 3.6 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, according to the Bank of Israel.

As members of the Jewish community find themselves unable to congregate in person, they are increasingly turning to the internet. Online coping advice, classes and notices of webinars on such topics as medical information and hints for preparing for the upcoming Passover holidays are serving as a growing means of doing what they formerly did face-to-face.

A coalition of 40 Jewish organizations will sponsor a speech by Natan Sharansky, former Soviet prisoner-of-conscience and Jewish Agency official, on today at noon. He will speak in “a global event … to a global audience of students and families about “Unity during Isolation,” to provide strength, encouragement and a unique perspective during this difficult time,” according to an announcement of the interactive class.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Jo-Ann Harris will take part in a webinar on the topic sponsored by Hadassah on coronavirus on Monday at 8 p.m. Questions should be submitted in advance to physicianscouncil@hadassah.org.

The Torah Umesorah Jewish day school organization is offering a series of “Morah and Me” videos geared to parents of homebound pre-school children. Or go to Videos\turesponse.org/preschool.

With an eye on Passover, myriad Jewish organizations are offering advice on how to celebrate the holiday in this era of quarantines and social distancing. They include the Reform movement and Chabad.

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