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Need To Know: Coronavirus in the Jewish community

The United States has seen nearly 1,000 cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus, which the World Health Organization characterized Wednesday as a pandemic — and the biggest outbreak in the U.S. is in Jewish community of New Rochelle, N.Y., just outside New York City. Also among the infected: a Jewish non-profit professional in Cleveland, several attendees of the AIPAC Policy Conference, and 29 students at a New York Jewish school.

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Several individuals I know have tested positive, and it was evident we are not dealing with a ripple effect; this is an earthquake.

Quarantined resident Stan Weiss of New Rochelle reads the megillah at home. Image by Stan Weiss

So is there something Jewish about this outbreak? No — and yes.

Coronavirus spreads by person-to-person contact, and people can be contagious for up to two weeks before showing symptoms. The first Jewish New Yorker known to have had the disease was a lawyer from New Rochelle, N.Y. who attended synagogue while asymptomatic, and many synagogue members have since contracted COVID-19 and perhaps spread it to others in their vicinity. More than 110 people in New Rochelle have since been diagnosed, the largest such cluster in the country, according to The New York Times. But a similar process also played out in another, non-Jewish context: a Washington state nursing home.

The common denominator? Infected people who didn’t know they were sick, in close proximity to others.


A ribbon tied to a tree in front of Young Israel of New Rochelle. Image by Ari Feldman

Cancellations and closings

The outbreak has had far-reaching effects on the American Jewish community. In New Rochelle, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered houses of worship closed in a one-mile containment zone. Jewish day schools and Yeshiva University have moved to online classes. The Israeli gap year program Kivunim has sent its students back to the States from Israel until April at the earliest. Jewish events like the Jewish Funders Network and Reboot conferences have been postponed. Tourism to Israel has essentially shuttered after the government banned entry to non-residents who aren’t able to quarantine themselves for 14 days upon arrival.

Still going to synagogue?

While some health officials are recommending “social distancing,” Judaism is a communal religion, leading many leaders to suggest steps to keep people healthy while still going to synagogue: Telling people not to kiss the Torah, communal prayer books or mezuzahs. Using disposable chopsticks as Torah pointers. Greeting people with elbow bumps or the “Spock” hand signal (which, of course, was adapted from the Jewish priestly blessing in the first place). And urging people feeling sick to stay at home and watch services on livestream.

Do you have any questions about the coronavirus and how it’s affecting the Jewish community? Email me at [email protected] and I’ll try to answer your questions in a future article. And as always, consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and your local government officials for guidance on how to stay healthy.

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