COVID-19 at Ohev Sholom aggravated by slow response, changing guidance



Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, center, and congregants at Ohev Sholom’s Torah dedication in September 2019. Photo by Howard Wilson.

Correction: The statement that Ohev Sholom held Shabbat service on March 14 is incorrect and we have removed it from the story.

At least four people associated with Ohev Sholom—The National Synagogue have tested positive for COVID-19. This comes after a flurry of changes to local guidelines and lack of adequate preparation when one member tested positive, the Washington City Paper reported.

Ohev Sholom, in Shepherd Park with more than 350 member families, has canceled all services indefinitely. It urges members who gathered at events as far back as March 6 to self-quarantine for two weeks.

“Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, another positive case of coronavirus among our members was reported to us last night,” said a March 16 email from executive director Monica Wolfe, according to the City Paper.

As of March 20, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld told WJW that he was unaware of any new cases. He also does not have any date to reopen the Orthodox synagogue.

“We are all trying to do the best we can and we have to be patient with each other,” he said of the frequent changes to District guidelines.

As of March 20, there were 274 novel coronavirus cases in the Washington region, with 71 confirmed positive cases, according to the Washington Post.

Emails from March 12 to 16, provided to the City Paper, show that leaders of Ohev Sholom initially hesitated to close synagogue doors, “apparently at the advice of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office, their quick reversal in an effort to keep up with rapidly changing and confusing guidance,” the City Paper wrote.

The synagogue’s first exposure was likely at a shivah on March 6 after an attendee learned that a friend, who they’d had dinner with, had tested positive. District public health officials gave the attendee the same advice as any non-exposed person, according to the synagogue.

However, after the attendee tested positive, a synagogue email March 12 announced that after “speaking directly with the Mayor’s office,” they were canceling all social gatherings of 30 people or more.

On March 14, the member moved from “home quarantine” to “home isolation.” The person now stays in a bedroom and is “monitored by government authorities via various telehealth check-ins to ensure isolation,” the synagogue’s email to members said.

According to the City Paper report, on March 15, the synagogue’s leaders sent an update that alerted congregants to “at least three confirmed positive cases among our members … The most important take-away is that the virus has certainly reached our community and that it is imperative for all of us to practice social distancing measures,” it said.

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