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Year in Review: New York’s Jewish 2020 in 25 Stories
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Year in Review: New York’s Jewish 2020 in 25 Stories

Covid-19 and a polarizing election left a Jewish community divided, exhausted and looking for a brighter tomorrow.

An estimated 25,000 people protest the rising number of anti-Semitic hate crimes in the city at a rally that began in the plaza in front of City Hall, Jan. 5, 2020. (Jewish Week)
An estimated 25,000 people protest the rising number of anti-Semitic hate crimes in the city at a rally that began in the plaza in front of City Hall, Jan. 5, 2020. (Jewish Week)

In 2020, Covid-19 and a polarizing election left a Jewish community divided, exhausted and looking for a brighter tomorrow. But there were also some hopeful stories — of institutional creativity in the face of a pandemic, and individual resilience during a relentless public health crisis.

Below are 25 stories, from The Jewish Week and its partners, looking at the year that was primarily as it was experienced by Jewish New Yorkers.

January

Some 90,000 mostly charedi Orthodox Jews attended the 13th Siyum HaShas at MetLife Stadium on New Year’s Day, celebrating the completion of the Daf Yomi (literally “daily page”), a worldwide, seven-year cycle of Talmud study. The beginning of a new cycle inspired Jews of all backgrounds to study the Talmud, taking advantage of an explosion of apps, YouTube tutorials, podcasts and e-newsletters.

In a march organized by the UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, an estimated 25,000 people walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest the rising number of anti-Semitic hate crimes in the city and nearby locations, to express their solidarity with the traditionally observant Jews who have come under attack and to say that they won’t be cowed or intimidated by the scourge.

The Ethical Culture Fieldston School fired a teacher who posted tweets opposing Zionism amid a controversy over anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism at the elite Riverdale prep school.

February

Yeshiva University’s men’s basketball team made the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division III Top 25 ranking for the first time –in a season that would be cut short by the Covid crisis.

Recipients of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, a top honor for emerging Jewish leaders, wrestle with the news that the program’s founder, the philanthropist Leslie Wexner, had close ties to Jeffrey Epstein, a financier and convicted sex offender who later committed suicide in jail amidst a wide reaching probe of the abuse of under-age girls. The New York Times reported about a culture of sexual harassment and bullying of female employees and models at Victoria’s Secret, the lingerie brand owned by Wexner’s L Brands.

March

In a sign of things to come, nearly all of the confirmed cases of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus in the state are traced to an attorney in his 50s who lived and prayed in New Rochelle. His entire family, whose reach extended from the SAR Academy in Riverdale to Yeshiva University — key institutions of Modern Orthodox life — were quarantined.

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side announces a two-day closure. Soon, every Jewish intuition would close its doors or abide by strict occupancy limits imposed by the state and city. That same week, at least 100 people test positive for the new coronavirus in the chasidic community of Borough Park.

Rabbi Shmuel Plafker, a chaplain for New York’s Hebrew Free Burial Association, inspects fresh graves for the indigent at Staten Island’s Mount Richmond Cemetery. The society became overwhelmed with Covid-19 victims. (Jewish Week)

By the third week in March, the closing of public Jewish institutions appeared to be nearly complete. In a statement released 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.

Several New York Jewish leaders create a new political group, New York Jewish Agenda, to advocate for liberal causes at the city, state and national level.

April

The UJA-Federation of New York makes available more than $34 million in grants and loans to assist vulnerable New Yorkers most affected by the coronavirus pandemic, including organizations providing food relief and social service agencies. On the week of the announcement, New York State had a total of nearly 84,000 cases and over 2,200 deaths, with New York City as the hardest-hit area.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio draws fierce criticism after he singles out “the Jewish community” in a trio of tweets announcing that he had instructed his police department to fine or even arrest social distancing violators. De Blasio was responding to a funeral that had drawn hundreds of Orthodox Jews to the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to mourn a rabbi who died of the coronavirus.

Protesters gather in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park to denounce lockdowns of their neighborhood due to a spike in Covid-19 cases, Oct. 7, 2020. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

May

Protests of the killing in police custody of George Floyd divide the Jewish community, with a liberal majority backing the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and a conservative, mostly Orthodox, minority conflicted about opposing police misconduct while supporting the police more generally.

Synagogues across the country develop options for September’s High Holy Day services that are in compliance with state and local directives and the suggestions of medical advisory panels. Some are considering reopening with limited attendance. Others are already assuming that people will worship at home and, depending on the movement and the rabbi, tuning in via Zoom.

June

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx), the pro-Israel stalwart and powerful chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, loses to Jamaal Bowman, a former Bronx middle school principal, in the Democratic primary. With black progressives winning in two other safe Democratic districts — Councilman Ritchie Torres in the 15th District and Mondaire Jones in the 17th — moderates braced for the consequences of a changing of the guard.

SAR Academy, a Jewish day school in Riverdale, offers students a musical program over Zoom — the new normal for schools throughout the city. (Courtesy of SAR Academy)

July

Faced with losses due to the Covid-19 epidemic and a changing media landscape, The Jewish Week places its print newspaper on hiatus and focuses on digital. Like Jewish newspapers in Canada, Great Britain and across the United States, The Jewish Week seeks a new model for sustaining Jewish journalism in a difficult economy.

Synagogues rethink their financial models and brace for what will likely be a profoundly different High Holiday season. Some of the changes in dues were already in the works, but the financial blow of the coronavirus pandemic upended old membership models.

Some 37 years after attending Yeshiva & Mesivta Bais Yisroel, Haim Zuckerman files a lawsuit against the Brooklyn-based school and one of its counselors, Avrohom Mondrowitz, alleging that Mondrowitz molested the then 13-year-old during counseling sessions. The complaint was the latest to take advantage of a law passed last year allowing victims of childhood sexual abuse a limited window of time in which to pursue abuse claims even if the statute of limitations has run out.

The Lucerne Hotel on W. 79th St. in Manhattan was converted into a homeless shelter during the Covid-19 crisis. (Upper West Siders for Safer Streets)

August

The Upper West Side of Manhattan, including its Jewish institutions, is deeply divided over the placement of several hundred homeless individuals in area hotels. Meant to alleviate overcrowding at city shelters amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, the move by the city led to complaints of lawlessness and unsanitary behavior — as well as calls for more compassion.

September

Despite tough odds, hundreds of Jewish day schools opened their doors to students with a variety of new pandemic protocols. Schools began experimenting with plexiglass desk guards, intermittent online learning, block scheduling, no more carpooling, outdoor learning, emergency planning and mandatory mask-wearing for students as young as three. Shortly thereafter, day schools began reporting positive cases, throwing plans into turmoil.

New Yorkers mourn Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Brooklyn native who became a feminist icon and pop culture star as a liberal stalwart on the U.S. Supreme Court. Many took Ginsburg’s death on the eve of Rosh Hashanah as akin to a personal loss, and dreaded an appointment by President Trump that could solidify the court’s conservative majority for a generation.

Admirers of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg paid tribute to her memory outside her former home on East 9th Street in Midwood, Brooklyn, Sept. 21, 2020. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

Students at Columbia College pass a first-ever referendum to boycott and divest from companies that “profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s acts towards Palestinians.” University president Lee C. Bollinger released a statement opposing the move and saying the university “should not change its investment policies.”

October

Over a thousand mostly Orthodox Jews gathered for a rally in support of Donald Trump in Brooklyn, one of a number of rallies meant to air their grievances against Democratic leadership in New York, protest strict anti-Covid guidelines, and call for four more years of the Republican US president.

November

Joe Biden defeats Donald Trump in the presidential election, although Trump will not concede and will go on to falsely insist that he was the victim of widespread voter fraud. The polarizing campaign found Jews on both sides of a yawning divide, with critics reviling Trump’s policies, nastiness and autocratic tendencies, and supporters praising the administration for pro-Israel policies that included the sealing of peace accords between Israel and three of its Arab neighbors. Others found in Biden a decency and commitment to democratic norms that made him the anti-Trump.

President Donald J. Trump, joined by White House senior staff members, announces the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to seek diplomatic ties, Aug. 13, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

The Supreme Court blocked government restrictions on houses of worship imposed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in a case brought by Agudath Israel of American on behalf of its affiliated New York synagogues. The decision was the first in which Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement, gave the conservatives a majority, and showed the conservative justices to be highly sympathetic to exempting religious institutions from government regulation.

December

The autumn and winter prove a trying time for health care professionals in Orthodox neighborhoods, who find themselves giving advice that no one wants to hear. A nurse practitioner and charedi Orthodox resident of Borough Park tells The Jewish Week that her neighbors dismiss the virus and publicly defy safety measures intended to contain it. She fights against the idea that her community has reached “herd immunity,” only to see it gain traction. Meanwhile, a clinic serving chasidic communities in Brooklyn allegedly offered the Covid-19 vaccine to members of the public before that was allowed.

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