At Beth El Hebrew Congregation, Coronavirus is not welcomed



Students at Beth El Hebrew Congregation. The Alexandria synagogue has been wiping down the pews and doorknobs.

Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria prides itself on its openness and inclusivity. But the COVID-19 virus is not welcome at the Reform synagogue.

To keep the coronavirus at bay, they’re wiping down the pews and handles, as well as reminding congregants to follow the CDC’s guidance: wash hands, don’t touch your face and, if you’re over 60, avoid crowds, according to Rabbi Brett Isserow, the congregation’s rabbi emeritus.

“It’s pretty sad, but it’s the right thing to do at this time. I don’t think it’s worth taking a chance and having people being quarantined,” he said.

There has been one programmatic casualty: Beth El cancelled its Evening of Mussar, scheduled for March 21. It was to be a panel discussion on the Reform movement’s new Mussar Torah Commentary, which looks at each Torah portion through one of the middot, or character traits, described in the Jewish school of ethics called mussar.

Isserow contributed an essay to the book, which was edited by Rabbi Barry Block. Block had planned to appear at Beth El Hebrew Congregation while he attended the conference of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in Baltimore. On Monday, though, Reform rabbis received word that the conference was cancelled as a precaution against the coronavirus, Isserow said. Block then cancelled his trip to Beth El Hebrew Congregation, which cancelled its mussar program.

That’s not likely to stop the teaching of mussar at the congregation. Isserow has been leading a mussar group since 2009.

“A very obvious example of a middot characteristic is anger,” Isserow said. “Anger has all these characteristics from being in a rage to being passive such as a doormat. Mussar teaches us to find the location of ourselves on the spectrum and either dial it up or dial it down.”

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