By Andrew Zucker
On March 13, 2020, in an attempt to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19), Rabbis from more than 10 synagogues in the Five Towns announced the indefinite closures of all synagogues and ritual bath houses.
The closures came seven days before Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “PAUSE” mandate, issued on March 20. The Five Towns, Lawrence, Woodmere, Cedarhurst, Hewlett and Inwood, are home to more than 10 synagogues that were affected by the closures.
“We are at a tipping point here; at this point, everything should be closed,” Rabbi Dr. Aaron E. Glatt, chairman of Medicine and Hospital Epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau, said. “Unfortunately, that includes synagogues and schools,” Glatt had previously urged the synagogues to consider closing. “We need to do all we can to minimize social mixing between people. It’s important for everyone to realize that this is an extremely critical time when we can prevent a much more difficult period.”
An email from the rabbis came less than 10 days after the first case of Covid-19 was declared in New York State. On March 4, 2020, a Jewish lawyer from Westchester County started showing symptoms. Within 48 hours, the man had spread the virus to his family and, unknowingly, to his entire community after attending services at his synagogue. The contagion kept expanding after that.
Congregants all over the Five Towns searched for answers in the wake of the ever expanding virus. Rabbi Ephraim Polakoff, the leader of Bais Tefilah in Woodmere, has gone to great lengths to ease the minds of everyone.
“We have responded by banding together in other ways,” Polakoff said. “We created a WhatsApp chat for an efficient way to communicate important information quickly. I have also used that chat to leave daily 4-5 minute ‘Torah thoughts’ as a way to stay in touch. These chats are also opportunities for us to provide chizuk (encouragement) to people during this time.”
In Judaism, when a person passes away, the person’s sons are required to say a special prayer during every prayer service called the “Mourner’s Kaddish”. Recited three times during the morning service, once in the afternoon, and once in the evening, the kaddish must be recited in front of a minyan, which consists of a group of at least 10 religiously practicing men over the age of 13.
After the initial closures of the many synagogues, special services were held in people’s backyards for the sole purpose of allowing mourners to say kaddish. Moish Kadry, a congregant at Bais Tefilah in Woodmere, attended the services as a mourner himself but had mixed emotions about the situation.
“I feel that something is missing,” Kadry said. “Kaddish is expected to be said by the child. Initially there were still house prayer services that were being held in people’s backyards, and we stood six feet apart, but that quickly stopped…I pray every day at home, alone, slower, but with more meaning.”
Covid-19 is not the first world pandemic that has had such widespread global effects. While there were many before, between 1852 and 1923 the world saw four devastating cholera pandemics wipe out devastating numbers of people.
The deadliest cholera outbreak spanned seven years during the mid-to-late 1850’s, affecting Asia, Europe, North America and Africa. Jews made up a good percentage of the population in those parts of the globe and were just as affected as anyone else. Rabbi Elli Fischer, a historian and author of numerous articles and books on Jewish life during those years, likened their religious practice to life itself.
“In these communities, religion was not a compartmentalized aspect of life, but an all-embracing totality,” Fischer said. “Public performances of ritual might stop, but religious life did not cease any more than life itself ceased.”
In those years, kaddish was also practiced during lockdown.
“At the time, kaddish was considered more of a privilege than a duty,” Fischer explained. “One person would recite kaddish, and there’s vast literature regulating who gets the right to say it; so, on any given day, a mourner might not have the privilege of saying kaddish in the first place. The pandemic left so many mourners that Rabbi Akiva Eger temporarily abrogated the rule of one person at a time reciting kaddish, because otherwise mourners would have too few opportunities to say it.”
With the Jewish holiday of Passover just a week away and synagogues still shut down, some Rabbis are making exceptions to the rules to allow for more inclusive Passover gatherings, known as “Seders.” Rabbi Eliyahu Abergel, head of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court for over a decade, announced in conjunction with other rabbis in the area that families would be allowed to use Zoom technology during the Passover seder due to this “time of emergency”.
“Passover Seder is going to be very different this year,” Beit Tefilah congregant Kevin Marek said. “We normally like to do the Seder with a big group of people, but since that can’t happen, we’re going to have to make do with what we can… It’s a very difficult situation to be going through.”
For the time being, Marek and the rest of the people living in the Five Towns will be stuck at home. A map designed by Newsday newspaper shows Woodmere with the highest total confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Nassau County, with no signs of letting up anytime soon.