By Jill Kirsch
On the heels of this week’s World Health Organization announcement that the novel coronavirus crisis has now reached pandemic levels, local communities took action to help slow the spread of the virus. According to experts, the goal is to “flatten the curve,” using social distancing as a means to control the virus’ spread in an effort to keep medical facilities from being overwhelmed by patients.
Although initially there were no reported cases of COVID-19 in Essex County, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (JKHA/RKYHS) in Livingston made the decision to close the school to students on Friday, March 13, with the plan to use the day for faculty preparedness for the possibility of future online learning. On Thursday morning, March 12, an email went out from Head of School and Klatt Family Rosh Hayeshiva Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, stating: “To mitigate the fast spread of the coronavirus in our broader community, JKHA/RKYHS will transfer to an online, distance learning format from March 16th until March 20th (March 13th is a faculty training day). Subject to the recommendations of experts, we hope to resume on-campus learning on Monday, March 23rd...We will update you at the end of next week about the resumption of on-campus learning.”
To facilitate continued learning for students, the school planned to transfer to an online instructional format for the duration of its physical closure, with instructions to be sent to families on Friday. In addition, Rabbi Rubin recommended that students maintain social distance from their peers during the school’s closure, with sleepovers and exposure to the general public strongly advised against.
Similarly, The Jewish Educational Center (JEC) in Elizabeth, Union County, sent out an email on Thursday evening, stating that to aid the communal social distancing efforts, the school would “be suspending all in-school classes and activities at the end of the school day today until further notice. To ensure educational continuity, we will be implementing distance-learning beginning on Monday morning.”
Like at Kushner, the JEC teachers were instructed to report to school on Friday to complete their online training and planning. Further, noted Rabbi Pinchas Shapiro, executive vice president, “In addition to distance learning, we will also be providing academic support for our diverse learners, as well as social emotional support for our students as they navigate this new environment.”
Also on Thursday, Golda Och Academy in West Orange made the decision to close. Adam Shapiro, head of school, noted, “Beginning tomorrow, Friday, March 13, Golda Och Academy will be closed for our students through Pesach Break. Our return date is subject to change — either earlier or later — based on ongoing communications with health professionals and guidance from the State of NJ.”
It was also announced that the Livingston public school system would shut down for two weeks and shift to remote learning, and the West Orange public schools moved their spring break to next week, announcing that if the schools remain closed after that time, they will also transition to an online learning platform. The West Orange board of education wrote: “ALL after school and evening extracurricular, athletic and community events scheduled for March 12 through Monday, March 16th will be cancelled or postponed without exception.”
The synagogues, too, took the unprecedented step of closing their doors, at least in Essex County, where on Thursday, March 12, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was announced. A Montclair woman in her 60s was reported to have tested positive for the virus. She is currently hospitalized.
Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston announced its closure on Thursday evening: “It is with a heavy heart that we have to make what is probably the most difficult and sad decision in the history of our Shul. Effective immediately, we will be closing Etz Chaim for ALL activities, including Davening, Shiurim, Youth Activities and social gathering. We know there will be confusion, sadness, perhaps even anger, but we take the notion of Safeik Pikuach Nefesh - saving of a life which is only possibly in danger - very seriously. There has just been a confirmed case in Essex County which has only solidified our decision to try and stay ahead of this,” wrote Rabbi E. Samuel Klibanoff and the shul leadership in an email to members.
Congregation AABJ&D in West Orange also reached out to its membership, in an email from Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler, Rabbi Yosef Sharbat and the shul leadership: “This afternoon, the first case of COVID-19 in Essex County was reported...We believe that we must be vigilant and do all we can to minimize social contact and help reduce the spread of the virus. With that as our priority, and against the backdrop of school closures in our community and multiple event cancellations in the secular community, we have made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend all minyanim and activities at AABJ&D. Beginning at 5:00 pm on Friday, March 13th, the building will be closed.”
In a follow up pre-Shabbat message sent on Friday morning, Rabbi Zwickler stated, “It is with a very heavy heart that I write this week's Shabbat message. This is the first time in our Shul's history that we won’t be holding minyanim on Shabbat,” advising, “Although we cannot come together physically, we are able to daven individually, yet collectively, by davening at the very same time that we do so each week. For example, for those of us who daven at the Hashkama minyan, we should daven this week at home beginning at 8am. In this manner, our individual tefillot will still be united as a community albeit not halachically betzibbur.” He also discouraged house minyamin at this time, citing health and safety concerns, and announced that he would be holding a Zoom session on Friday afternoon to address any Shabbat-related questions.
Similar closings were announced on Thursday evening by Livingston’s Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center (SSTC) and West Orange’s Congregation Ohr Torah. Rabbi Elie Mischel and the SSTC shul leadership sent an email to families, stating: “This afternoon, the first case of COVID-19 in Essex County was reported, and it is safe to assume that the virus will continue to spread in our area...As such, out of an abundance of caution, and responsibility to the broader Livingston community, we have decided to temporarily suspend all services and activities at Suburban Torah...Losing the opportunity to pray together, even temporarily, is a great loss for our community. Yet we must remember that Hashem has instructed us in His Torah to prioritize life above all.” The shul planned a virtual Kabbalat Shabbat, to be held via Zoom together with the Young Israel of New Rochelle, which remains closed and in the middle of the containment zone in Westchester County, New York, for erev Shabbat.
Rabbi Marc Spivak and the Ohr Torah board of directors wrote: “As a precaution in light of the COVID-19 coronavirus, Congregation Ohr Torah is temporarily closed. This means that no minyanim, programming or events will take place in the building until further notice. We will reevaluate the situation on a regular basis to decide when we will reopen. We are saddened by the events that have led to this decision and wish for a full recovery for those who are suffering and a speedy end to this pandemic.”
In nearby Union County, the Vaad HaRabbonim of Greater Elizabeth sent out an email on Thursday evening, saying: “Earlier today, we consulted with medical experts and the administration of our local hospitals who provided their guidance and recommendations to us...Our shuls and minyanim will remain open. We are aware that other communities have closed shuls but that step has not been recommended to us at this time. We are however recommending several prudent steps to help reduce the spread of the virus: Those in high risk categories, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, are strongly encouraged to avoid exposure and not go to shul. If you feel that you could be at risk please do not attend public gatherings, including shul. Those who develop symptoms of flu-like or respiratory illness should contact their health care provider immediately and should not attend shul or any other public event.”
While their shuls are remaining open for now, the email advised: “Until further notice, we are cancelling all shul social events, kiddushim and seudah shlishis and urge community members to reduce social gatherings and practice social distancing as best as possible. Shabbos morning youth groups are cancelled and we strongly discourage lobby gatherings both during and after davening,” and added, “Our Mikvah will remain open and enhanced cleaning and disinfecting will continue.”
The West Orange mikvah sent out a community email on Friday, stating that the mikvah would be closed to men until further notice, and citing specific requirements for women. Men were referred to Mikvah Chana in nearby Livingston.
In an email to the community before Shabbat, the Vaad of MetroWest noted the closures necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic and wrote: "We are asking the entire community to make a special effort to continue patronizing our kosher establishments throughout this difficult time. Many restaurants will be shifting to a 'take-out' approach; details for each restaurant are provided on page two of this letter." The second page listed the current changes and specifics involving the food service establishments in Essex and Union counties, which included adding delivery options, establishing flat or waived delivery fees with specific minimums, changed hours and more.
As noted by every shul and school, this is a fluid situation, subject to change at any time. Each school and shul requested immediate notification if any of their community members becomes symptomatic, comes into contact with someone who has tested positive, or themselves tests positive for COVID-19.