For the Times of Israel March 22 2020
As Shabbat concluded this week, a new alarming video went around the strictly Orthodox community in the UK. Yitzchok Kornbluh from Stamford Hill, London — home to thousands of Charedi Jews — took to the screen in lament.
He had heard, he said, that despite the danger of the coronavirus, “that shuls were full, that mikvaot (ritual baths) were full. Where is the seichel (common sense) of those who went to shul today?”
Another Twitter user, who calls himself @IfYouTickleUs, and is a reliable recorder of what is going on in Stamford Hill, wrote: “I was stopped on Friday by someone who genuinely didn’t know what’s going on. When I said it’s real danger, he said, but the rabbonim haven’t closed shuls. What does one say without a rant?”
It’s almost impossible to say how long such a situation — of open synagogues and yeshivot — can last. But at the time of writing the major strictly Orthodox grouping, the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, had declined to order its congregations to close their synagogues. It has merely ruled that “healthy men” may continue to attend synagogue and that women and children may not.
This is despite the shockwave that went through mainstream British Jewry when the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, made an unprecedented announcement earlier in the week that all synagogues under his authority — mainly in London but a number affiliated in the provinces — would close for an unspecified period. This runs to about 60 separate buildings: some congregations have an informal affiliation and so aren’t calculated in these figures.
Richard Verber, spokesman for the United Synagogue, the main Orthodox denomination under the Chief Rabbi’s aegis, said “this was the hardest decision the US has had to take since the Second World War”. It’s not just the physical buildings which have been closed for worship: no bar or bat mitzvahs are taking place, and weddings are only allowed in the most scaled-back of conditions.
Funerals, too, are affected, with prayer halls at cemeteries closing, and all proceedings taking place in the open air. Verber said the rule of thumb was “the largest space available with the smallest number of people”. The United Synagogue was not yet banning stone setting services, he said, but he did not rule it out in the future. He added: “We are expecting people not to have formal shiva houses. That’s one of the worst examples, of a lot of people crowding into a small space and milling about in close proximity, exactly what the government does not want us to do.”
A number of bereaved families have announced that when it is safe to do so they will hold memorial services for those who have died.
There was one joyful exception to the “no barmitzvah” ruling this week when Naftali Arden, whose family are members of the Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue in north London, had his barmitzvah streamed on-line, with the aid of the congregation’s rabbi, Alex Chapper.
Tania Arden, Naftali’s mother, said: “Last Friday (March 13) we took the decision to cancel the party and the family meals we’d planned”. At this point the closure of the synagogues had not yet been announced. A member of the Borehamwood Synagogue board approached Mrs Arden to ask if Naftali would like to say his Haftorah on-line, and Mrs Arden, after consultation with her husband Leigh, thought it might make up for the cancellation.
“I had no concept of the tech that went into making it work and how meaningful and special it would end up being.” But hundreds of people — including family members who had been due to come from abroad — viewed the video and the Ardens now hope that Naftali will be able to leyn at his sister’s planned batmitzvah in February 2021.
Other synagogue groupings such as the Masorti (Conservative) Judaism movement, the Sephardi synagogues, and the Reform and Liberal movements, have also closed their synagogue doors. But Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, senior rabbi of British Masorti Judaism, though regretting the necessity to close synagogue buildings, said he believed “we are lucky to live in a time where technology can help us. People may not be gathering physically, but they are gathering in spirit, asking what can they do to help”. The offers of help, he said, were not just being extended to the Jewish community, but from Jews to other faiths. “I’m very hesitant to predict where this might leave us, although I do think it will help us to learn about being humble. It’s my intention to be in touch with other communities and other faiths, to express solidarity with them.”
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, senior rabbi of the Reform movement, said Reform was “all geared up” technologically. Already planned were on-line services and she hoped, she said, to host an on-line second seder from her home, in lieu of the usual communal seder.
It’s not, of course, just religious life which has been disrupted in the face of the coronavirus. Cultural Jewish life has taken a hit, too, with well-used places such as the Ben Uri Art Gallery, the Jewish Museum, and the five-year-old JW3, the Jewish Community Centre for London, all closing their doors.
JW3 is a particular blow because it had become the “go-to” building for almost every communal endeavor, from political hustings for the next London mayor to every type of arts event, including hosting parts of the wildly popular UK Jewish Film Festival, the Israeli Film Festival, and some sessions for the just-concluded Jewish Book Week.
But Ray Simonson, CEO of JW3, is putting a brave face on the temporary closure, and has launched JW3TV, a way of putting, first previous events on-line, and then with the possibility of livestreaming — with the requisite social distancing — future talks. He says: “We’ve started posting two pre-recorded events each day — talks, discussions, concerts, interviews etc”.
Organised communal life has been relatively quick to respond to the coronavirus emergency, with both the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council holding meetings to decide how to co-ordinate volunteer initiatives. The Board has produced a “Can I Help” card offering help for people who are self-isolating, all co-ordinated by Deputies staffer Lauren Keiles.
Board president Marie van der Zyl said: “We are facing an unprecedented time of crisis… we all need to dig deep and play our part”.
Schools closure has led to new thinking, too, from an unexpected source — the Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade, or JLGB, a youth movement often joined by young people who enjoy playing marching band music. Neil Martin, its CEO, announced a new daily programme for those stuck at home, with the input of adult volunteers.
He said JLGB, which is a registered charity, had had offers of help from professionals, performers and celebrities.“Sessions will include learning magic tricks, Duke of Edinburgh’s Award training such as first aid and map reading, alongside sessions on photo-editing, app-design, coding and mindfulness”, Martin said.
Speakers include rabbis, communal leaders, industry experts, footballers, puppeteers, and “a couple of celebrities” but Martin said it was open to “any young person or parent who has a skill to offer, or who may be a known figure, stuck at home climbing the walls, please consider giving us half an hour to teach life skills and inspire thousands of children”.
In Manchester the newly-elected Bury South MP, Christian Wakeford, has been praised by the local Jewish social services hub, The Fed, whose volunteers had been trying to buy goods at a local supermarket. As Raphi Bloom of The Fed explained: “Our volunteer was trying to buy multiples of goods for a variety of our clients who are self-isolating at home, but the supermarket manager wouldn’t let him have more than one product. After Christian Wakeford intervened, only volunteers wearing a Fed badge are able to buy duplicate products.”
In the same city the Fed has launched a new scheme, Pens and Crayons, to allow people to send messages to the locked-in residents of the local old age home, Heathlands Village. Raphi Bloom said The Fed had been “overwhelmed” with contributions but advised that all letters and drawings would be quarantined before giving them to residents.
And Manchester traders were among a group of kosher food importers who have made a video clip to assure those forced to stay in the UK for Pesach that there were more than sufficient food supplies. Seder night for British Jews this year will be restricted — and, perhaps, lonely for some — but every effort is being made to keep people safe.