Tuesday, January 19, 2021

As Jews, we have a culture that is centered around open debate. The Gemara. Avraham and Moshe debating God Himself. The old saw of two Jews, three opinions.

Nevertheless, there are some things that should not be debated at the communal level. As a community, I believe it should be beyond debate that all of our organizations must adhere to any generally applicable state health laws.

Today, however, many of our communal organizations, particularly schools, have instituted rules imposing restrictions and quarantines on our kids that often go above and beyond what state health authorities require or recommend. Just to pick an easy example, our yeshivot require extended quarantine from school after any air travel, which state rules do not.

I suspect The Jewish Link may receive letters saying that the ad from Gershon Distenfeld (Page 16, October 1, 2020) should not have been printed. But Mr. Distenfeld is not challenging adherence to state rules, only imposition of community rules that go above and beyond. The reaction to his piece underscores that many others are puzzled as well. There is puzzlement because the state rules represent the best thinking by the governor’s team of epidemiologists as to what the science says are the meaningful risks—including with input from experts in other fields such as developmental psychology. If a local community team of doctors is advising our school leaders and rabbis that they believe the state’s team of infectious disease experts has misunderstood or underestimated the risks so that our community needs above and beyond rules, it could only help promote community adherence if they would explain why. Even for God-decreed mitzvot, after all, there is a long tradition of trying to explain their meaning and necessity in order to promote adherence.


It is particularly difficult for many of us to understand this above and beyond approach at the grade school level. There are hundreds of thousands of grade schools open in Europe, Asia, the U.S. and elsewhere. I have found no journalist, epidemiologist or anyone else aware of any grade school (as opposed to high school) anywhere in the world having experienced a significant outbreak based on grade-school child transmission (though a handful of individual transmissions from children have been traced.)

Perhaps there are reasons that our community needs certain above and beyond rules, but the community has not heard what those reasons are. I would therefore like to invite anyone from the schools or the committee involved in designing these rules to engage in a dialogue in an appropriate public forum that we can arrange (probably Zoom) in order to discuss, explain and, if necessary, debate them. The response to Mr. Distenfeld’s ad proves that it will be of interest to many. And, to explain and answer questions is in keeping with our best Jewish traditions. I can be reached at [email protected]

Dan Barenholtz