The coronavirus — or COVID-19 — is an equal-opportunity villain. The medical world doesn’t yet know how lethal the flu-like virus is, nor is there a vaccine to prevent or mitigate it. The virus continues to spread, and the worldwide death toll rises. While every life is precious, it is still human nature for concern to increase as the danger approaches one’s daily life.
And so, we’ve been following COVID-19’s spread in the Jewish community with familial-like interest and concern. The threat of the virus has affected activities that Jews take for granted. Like shiva visits — the condolence gathering after the death of a loved one. In suburban Maryland, a man who later tested positive for coronavirus made a shiva call at a Rockville retirement community, potentially exposing up to 100 people. In Baltimore, seven Jewish day schools announced in emails to parents that they have cancelled all extracurricular Purim events.
More and more we’re seeing institutions cancelling retreats, dinners and programs “out of an abundance of caution.” New York’s Jewish community has been particularly hard hit. At least three Jewish day schools in the New York area are closed due to a “suspected case of coronavirus in our community,” with at least one ordered by the New York State Department of Health to remain closed through March 16. Rabbi Reuven Fink of Young Israel of New Rochelle in Westchester County, New York, informed his congregants late last week that he is quarantined, after testing positive for the virus, having been exposed through a synagogue member.
Fear of exposure at simple, regular communal gatherings of all sorts is becoming the focus of ongoing concern. And day-to-day religious life has been impacted. Several congregations either cancelled or modified their Purim programs. In some synagogues over Shabbat the Torah was not paraded around during services, and congregants were advised not to touch the scrolls.
Greeting protocols at synagogues and elsewhere have been modified, and food handling at weekly Kiddush collations have been adjusted to minimize possible exposure.
At least through the end of the month, much of the Jewish world is going dark out of an abundance of caution. The Jewish Funders Network is canceling its conference. The Reboot Ideas Festival, a Jewish arts conference, has been postponed. The International March of the Living will likely be postponed indefinitely. Trips to Israel through Birthright Israel and other planned travel for various organizations are on hold.
With so much left to learn about this still-developing epidemic, we can only echo the best practices suggested by the CDC: Wash your hands often with soap and water. Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue. If you experience cold or flu-like symptoms, call your doctor. If you’re sick, stay home from work or school.
Exercising an abundance of caution is the right thing to do.