Coronavirus Threatens Jewish Communities

By | March 5, 2020

By Joel Leyden
Israel News Agency / Jewish News Agency

New York — March 4, 2020 … Just a few weeks ago Jewish synagogues throughout the United States were implementing security plans to prevent attacks by Neo-Nazis and Jihadists. Today the most lethal threat to Jewish communities transcends anti-semitic graffiti. It overshadows the many missiles and rockets of Iran, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

That threat is something called the Coronavirus.

The coronavirus was recently detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China and is rapidly causing a global outbreak of lethal respiratory disease. On February 11, 2020, the World Health Organization named the disease coronavirus disease 2019 (abbreviated “COVID‑19”).

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in people and many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats. Rarely, animal coronaviruses can infect people and then spread between people such as with MERS-CoVSARS-CoV, and now with this new virus (named SARS-CoV-2).

There are more than 100,000 cases around the world – the overwhelming majority in China – but as deaths are reported in Italy, Iran and the United States, authorities are considering new quarantine zones and travel restrictions.

Coronavirus does not discriminate. Actually it does. If you are a baby or young child, chances of acquiring and dying from this new disease is very low. But if you are over 30, the disease can and will take you down.

As the Coronavirus infests the United States, hitting several states, prompting California to declare a state of emergency, the residents of Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Washington state now have more than 160 cases confirmed and 13 dead. 

One location is particularly troubling. It’s a cozy northern suburb of New York City called New Rochelle.

New Rochelle is a middle upper class town embracing many people of various ethic origins. But one group, the close-knit Orthodox Jewish community is now being targeted by Coronavirus like a heat seeking missile.

Yesterday, Temple Young Israel in New Rochelle was ordered to close it’s doors as a member of that synagogue is now in critical condition with all his family infected. That member works as an attorney in New York City.

The 50-year-old New Rochelle man’s family includes a wife and four children, two of whom are in Israel. One of the children, a daughter, attends SAR Academy in Riverdale. It closed for the day. One son is in college, Yeshiva University, which has also closed. The man’s family is under self-quarantine in their home.

Two other private schools – Westchester Day School in Mamaroneck and Westchester Torah Academy in White Plains – also closed for the day.


In the last few hours it has been disclosed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that the man who drove the first infected person to hospital, has also been infected by the virus and his entire family has tested positive.

The New Rochelle lawyer may have spread the virus already to hundreds of people at Shabbat services, a bat mitzvah and a funeral he attended last week at his synagogue, Young Israel of New Rochelle.

Cuomo expects thousands of cases to manifest in the coming weeks.

The second family, also under quarantine at home, sends their children — two sons and one daughter – to Westchester Torah Academy, a co-ed Modern Orthodox Yeshiva in White Plains, New York. The school was one of three Jewish schools in the New York area, including Westchester Day School and SAR Academy, that closed on Tuesday amid concerns of spread from the family of the New Rochelle lawyer. 

Health officials ordered Young Israel of New Rochelle, the family’s synagogue, to suspend activities. The officials mandated a two-week quarantine for anyone who attended a funeral at the synagogue on Feb. 22 or a bat mitzvah on Feb. 23. About 600 people are affected.

“It’s an old-world Jewish community, because everyone is so into everyone’s life,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman of the Larchmont Temple, a synagogue in a nearby town. “There’s a real sense of mutual support and mutual care. There’s a real sense of connectedness that is an extension of their Judaism.”

Sirkman’s synagogue sent a letter this week urging its 800-family congregation to take immediate precautions, including “rubbing elbows instead of shaking hands, to minimize the transmission of germs.”

“If we hug or hold hands or kiss a little less,” the letter said, “it does not mean we don’t care. On the contrary, with sincerity of heart, it means we truly do!”

Immediate suggestions to Jewish communities:

1. Send out an email to all synagogue members stating that if they feel ill, are coughing or sneezing, to report their symptoms to a doctor, stay home and view services via a Web broadcast.

2. Install liquid disinfectant stations at the entrance of the synagogue, in the bathrooms, in the kitchen, in every classroom. Use Purell professional surface disinfectant spray before and after meetings.

3. The use of masks should only be used for those who are ill – but then again – they should not be attending Temple services.

4. Handshaking must stop. The Israel Ministry of Health is in communication and in line with all of the above emergency CDC / WHO recommendations.

5. Wash your hands as often as possible as the virus can live on some surfaces for a few hours. Do not touch your face as the points of transmission are your nose, mouth and eyes.

6. Stop kissing the Torah and or garments used to touch the Torah. Reflecting upon the verses written in the scroll will suffice.

Today, the Conference of European Rabbis published a list of recommendations — including avoiding kissing mezuzahs, Torah scrolls and other people – to worshippers on how to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

The Jewish world has a choice. Do nothing and say it will not happen here.
Or eventually be ordered by the Town and or state health departments to close their synagogues.

We must take immediate actions to prove to the public that we care about our synagogue members and the general community.

Action on the above does not require a vote by the Temple Board and a meeting next month.

We need to alert all synagogue members and install disinfectant stations before Shabbat services.

As it took some time for many to accept police and uniformed security guards at the entrances of our synagogues with open arms – we must now act without panic – to keep our synagogues safe and secure from a lethal virus which as of last report today has mutated into something much more aggressive.

Yes, we will welcome the stranger. But not one who is sneezing or coughing.

We suggest that everyone checks out a few times a day.

“Namaste” may just save hundreds of lives.

We may want to take the advice of the newly elected Prime Minister of Israel. Netanyahu, at a press conference in Jerusalem after a meeting to review Israel’s fight to stop the spread of coronavirus, said that several measures will be announced to prevent the spread of the disease.

Instead of the normal handshake, Netanyahu suggests his countrymen to opt for “Namaste” to greet each other. “Namaste” is the customary means to greet each other in India with a smile and folded hands.

“Just avoid shaking hands as I do. You can try to implement the Indian system of Namaste or say another word like shalom, but find a way, any way of not shaking hands.”

Some good news!

Israeli scientists have announced that a new vaccine they developed for a deadly virus affecting poultry could be adapted for human use against the coronavirus.

Scientists at the Migal Research Institute in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona said last Thursday that after four years of multi-disciplinary research, they developed a vaccine against IBV (Infectious Bronchitis Virus), an avian coronavirus that affects the respiratory tract, gut, kidney and reproductive systems of domestic fowl. The disease causes “remarkable economic losses to the poultry industry by inducing respiratory and reproductive signs, decreased productive performances and increased mortality,” according to a 2019 veterinary study. The effectiveness of the new vaccine has been proven in pre-clinical veterinary trials.

While working on the avian vaccine, the Israeli scientists said they identified a possible COVID-19 vaccine candidate as a by-product of the IBV vaccine and have made the “required genetic adjustments to adapt the vaccine to COVID-19, the human strain of coronavirus.”

The scientists said they are now working toward safety approvals that will allow for in-vivo testing and – in the near future, possibly three weeks – the production of a vaccine.

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