Last Wednesday evening, March 11, more than 60 community rabbis, school heads and other organizational leaders from Bergen County, convened with Teaneck board of health officials and medical representatives from three local hospitals, at Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck. Their intent was to discuss the only issue at hand, that of doing their part in stemming the outbreak of COVID-19, a highly contagious novel coronavirus that generally causes mild symptoms. The medical personnel sounded the alarm that COVID-19 can cause catastrophic respiratory illness in a smaller group of aged or immunocompromised people within the global population.
The decision was clear and direct. In the first decision of its kind, which caused a cascade of moves by other Jewish communities regionally and around the world, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC) took the unprecedented step of closing all 28 synagogues in Bergen County. There would be no official minyanim in Bergen County by the Shabbat of March 13.
Additionally, they asked that all of the approximately 25 restaurants under RCBC kosher supervision suspend dining-in services, and pivot toward takeout orders. The rabbis, as well as the Bergen County school heads, who earlier in the day had made the decision to close all yeshiva day and high schools provisionally through March 18, wrote a letter to the community recommending a universal policy of strict social distancing; that of no minyanim in shuls or homes, no Shabbat meals outside the home, no shiva house visits, no playdates, chavrutas, shiurim or social events of any kind.
The decision was made on the very day the U.S. began taking the threat of COVID-19 contagion to a significantly higher level of concern, with the cancelation of events and gatherings on a large scale. After the presidential announcement restricting travel to the U.S. from Europe, the NCAA canceled its March Madness tournament (much to the disappointment of the Bergen County community’s multitudes of YU Maccabees basketball fans). A wide array of other organizational large-scale events, like NORPAC’s mission to Washington and every shul, community event and family simcha, were canceled locally and nationally. It was almost 24 hours after the RCBC took its decision that Bergen County Executive James Tedesco announced the closing of all of the county’s 70 school districts. It was many days later that Gov. Phil Murphy announced statewide closures and social-distancing plans.
“It is an issue of saving lives and being prudent to protect those who are vulnerable,” said Rabbi Zev Goldberg, vice president of the RCBC. He explained that what moved the group in a significant, directed way was the chief medical concern shared by hospital personnel from Englewood, Hackensack and Holy Name medical centers, that of overwhelming the hospitals with suspected cases of coronavirus which could compromise care for critically ill patients.
Rabbi Daniel Alter, The Moriah School’s head of school, explained that the goal at this point is to “flatten the curve” of the virus’s effect, to ensure that “our medical infrastructure is not overwhelmed.”
Rabbinic leaders throughout the ages have relied strongly on the opinions of those providing the best medical advice available in emergencies concerning pikuach nefesh, said several of the rabbis. Rabbi Hershel Schachter has since issued the psak halacha that all must comply with the directives of medical personnel to suspend any type of b'tzibbur davening. Brissim, marriages and burials must be made with minimal minyanim and witnesses.
“It was made extraordinarily clear to us when we met last night with hospital personnel that they are at 80% to 90% of capacity at all times, in their critical case units. They were greatly concerned about pushing that capacity. There is every indication that we will be hit just as hard as other countries. But if we are proactive, get in front of the curve, in front of the pikuach nefesh, the strongest response with active and aggressive social distancing can serve to mitigate the effects of the virus,” Rabbi Goldberg said.
“This decision was not taken lightly,” said Rabbi Kenneth Schiowitz, president of the RCBC. “However, synagogues, as centers for larger gatherings, must take the lead on social distancing. We have one goal, to slow the spread of the virus and to save lives. Preserving life is a paramount value in Judaism and that value is our guide at this point.”
Synagogues play an integral role in the Jewish community and this decision has far-reaching implications. Rabbi Zev Reichman, of East Hill Synagogue in Englewood, added, “This decision was hard and painful. We feel it is of utmost necessity. Our communities are resilient and caring. This time of testing will strengthen the bonds we feel with each other and the concern we display for fellow citizens.”
“It is very disappointing that we are not able to go to shul this Shabbos. It will be a very unusual Shabbos for many, but many felt that we needed to be aggressive from a pikuach nefesh standpoint. This is the current and present reality,” said Rabbi Goldberg.
“We are not the first in the world to deal with it, but we know that the only way to decrease or mitigate it is to be aggressive when it comes to the pikuach of the community, both Jewish and not Jewish. Social distancing is the only ticket to keeping the numbers down,” he said.
“To close our shuls and schools is a most difficult decision, depressing and demoralizing but fully expressive of the preciousness of health and longevity,” said Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger, rabbi of Bergenfield’s Congregation Beth Abraham. “Please include in your davening prayers for the recuperation of all who are ill, prayers for the protection of those who are exposed and prayers to be able to return to our shuls and daven together, berov am (in multitudes),” he added.