April 21, 2024
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Coronavirus Precautions Radically Reshape Jewish Life in Middlesex County

Observant Jewish life is known for many things, but one thing it’s not usually known for is adapting to new circumstances with great speed. This caution has served us well over the centuries, as each new fad shined brightly then slowly receded from favor.

The coronavirus era has challenged rabbanim, shuls and yeshivot to rapidly process changing situations, consult with others and assess halachic imperatives, and issue guidance to the community. In Middlesex County, the frum community has risen to the challenge and become a role model to others in their towns.

Shul Closures

By Monday morning, March 16, all the large shuls in the county had made the difficult decision to close indefinitely and cancel all services and events. Many of the individual shul messages announcing closures were tinged with expressions of discomfort and angst at the prospect of closing their doors, a move many had never experienced before and one that seemed to run contrary to the full performance of many mitzvot.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kaufman and shul president Jay Dobin of Congregation Ohav Emeth in Highland Park wrote in their email to the shul on Sunday, March 15: “It is with a heavy heart that we are forced to announce that our beloved shul, Congregation Ohav Emeth, has been open for tefilah and Torah for over 101 years, is now forced to close, effective immediately, in order to safeguard the health and well-being of the members of our community.”

Rabbi Steven Miodownik wrote in his message to Congregation Ahavas Achim on Friday, March 13: “Based on new information from trusted medical professionals and policies adopted by respected halachic authorities, we are moving to close Ahavas Achim for all minyanim and shiurim this Shabbat. My hands shake as I type these words, for much of our lives revolve around this tzibbur, and we dare not underestimate the value of community in our service of Hashem. Nevertheless, out of basic concern for human life, it would be dangerous to expose large numbers of people to each other in shul.”

Rabbi Efrayim Unterman of Young Israel of East Brunswick wrote in his message to his congregation on Friday, March 13: “I am writing to tell you the sad news that we must close our shul for the time being, starting today. … Part of me is increasingly despondent and heartbroken every time I hear the news that yet another holy shul will not ring with the sounds of children and adults enjoying davening, Torah learning and groups this Shabbos. And there is terrible sadness in adding our beloved and holy shul to the list.”

Yosef Golubchik reported that the rav of Ateres Shlomo Congregation in Edison, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Eichenstein, in sharing the news in a livestream video with his kehilla, “spoke about the heartbreaking decision to close.”

In his letter to his shul, Congregation Ahavas Yisrael of Edison, Rabbi Gedaliah Jaffe said, “This is a very difficult and even painful decision; better for us to make it voluntarily than to have the board of health or the governor to make it for us.”

Increased Use of Technology

Many of the shuls have pivoted to increased use of technology to share words of Torah and foster learning in the absence of shared spaces.

Golubchik relates that Ateres Shlomo has put many of their nightly shiurim on the Zoom video conferencing platform.

Josh Pruzansky reports that his shul, Agudath Israel of Highland Park, has begun offering conference calls for Daf Zomi and Dirshu Mishna Berura shiurim.

Jeffrey Taub of Young Israel of East Brunswick offers that his shul’s Adult Education Committee has begun using Facebook to engage members in discussion about Rabbi Reisman’s weekly Motzei Shabbos Navi shiur, which is also offered by videoconference.

Dr. Marc Hanfling of Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison reports that the shul’s rabbis started a WhatsApp group to share divrei Torah with shul members and shared this link to a dvar Torah by the shul’s senior rav, Rabbi Yaakov Luban, on March 16: https://youtu.be/CbosDPO4b48.

Congregation Ahavas Achim put three weekly shiurim on the Zoom platform and offered a novel one-time class on March 17 on “Social Distancing Survival Skills: A Family Guide,” led by Fran Ackerman, LCSW, a member of the shul.

Vaad Takes Action

In a letter sent out by many shuls on Tuesday, March 17, the Vaad HaRabonim of Raritan Valley expressly advised community members to avoid home minyanim, playdates for children, hosting Shabbos guests, and the kissing of mezuzot, siddurim, and sifrei Torah. They encouraged the community to patronize local kosher food establishments but to only purchase what their family regularly needs.

The Vaad also announced two initiatives: 1) A chesed project to enlist volunteers to aid individuals in need of help with daily tasks like shopping and preparing for Pesach, as well as checking in with isolated community members. 2) An Emergency Parnassa Initiative, seeking contributions to assist community members severely impacted by the closures of businesses. Both will be led by Rabbi Gedaliah Jaffe, who can be reached at [email protected].

By Harry Glazer

 

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