Congregations in region weigh COVID-19 concerns

At the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville on Feb. 28, representatives of Magen David Adom demonstrated Israel’s real-time emergency response system, noting increased activity due to coronavirus concerns

As cases of the COVID-19 variant of the coronavirus continue to pop up, congregations and institutions are monitoring the situation and issuing guidelines on their response and how those in the community can avoid risks.

As of March 6, there had been about 250 cases in a range of states, with 14 fatalities, including one older man from Santa Rosa County in the Florida panhandle, who had recently traveled overseas and died in a Pensacola hospital.

In the Seattle area, where there have already been several deaths from complications related to the virus, many Purim events have already been cancelled. Three Jewish schools in New York have shut down until further notice and are continuing classes over video conference. Some students and a teacher at Yeshiva University have been quarantined.

Several congregations in the region have sent out guidelines for public events and attending services. Congregations urge members to respect the wishes of others who may not want to shake hands, hug or kiss.

At Beth Israel in Jackson, “we ask that you do not kiss the prayer book to touch the Torah” during the service. Also, challah “will be distributed by staff or board members individually during oneg to limit cross-contamination.”

Chief rabbis in Israel and Europe have urged Jews to refrain from touching and kissing the mezuzah, saying it is a tradition, not a law, and one’s health is the priority.

Perhaps the most stringent suggestions came from Agudath Israel-Etz Ahayem in Montgomery, which asked congregants to “refrain from kissing, hugging, handshaking, fist bumps, and elbow touch.” They also advised sitting in every other seat in the chapel and sanctuary, with an empty row between people, except for those who are in the same household or traveled together to services.

“You should not be afraid to attend services, Sunday School, and other synagogue events and activities.  There have been no reported cases of COVID-19 in Alabama.  We are suggesting the above measures to keep it that way,” the congregation stated.

Beth Israel in Metairie cancelled the visit of Yeshivat Maharat student Tanya Farber as a scholar-in-residence the weekend of March 6. Several Beth Israel members attended the AIPAC Policy Conference the previous week, where there were attendees who attend the same school or congregation as individuals in New York who have since been diagnosed, but there is no evidence they came into contact with a carrier. Center for Disease Control guidelines do not call for the attendees from Beth Israel to be isolated, and the Orthodox Union does not recommend restricting AIPAC attendees from being at shul. At the March 6 dinner, Rabbi Josh Pernick led a pre-Purim discussion on “Mikra Megilla in Quarantine: How do we balance safety with the obligation to hear?”

Israel has said all Israelis who attended the AIPAC conference and returned to Israel on March 5 or after are required to home quarantine, as a third coronavirus case, this time in Los Angeles, has been reported among those at the conference. Israel is also considering a quarantine for travelers from New York, California and Washington.

A group of 14 from 3Circle Church in Fairhope, near Mobile, has been quarantined until further notice in a hotel in Bethlehem due to coronavirus exposure. A Greek tourist who had been at the hotel the previous week tested positive upon returning to Greece, and at least seven staffers at the hotel have tested positive.

B’nai Israel in Panama City distributed a three-stage plan, which is currently at level one, urging the washing of hands and use of hand sanitizer, and telling those with flu-like symptoms to stay home. If cases are confirmed in the county, congregants ages 70 and over or with a weakened immune system will be advised not to attend, and services will be posted online. There will also be a request to leave an empty seat between family groups. If level 3 were to occur, that would involve the cancellation of classes, services and events, with services and meetings held online.

“The safety and well-being of all of our community members is of our highest priority and we will continue to monitor the situation,” said B’nai Israel President Robert Goetz.

Birmingham’s Levite Jewish Community Center is “assessing the situation daily, and are prepared to make changes should the situation evolve.” There will be an added emphasis on regularly disinfecting surfaces, and additional hand sanitizer stations around the building.

Birmingham’s Temple Beth-El said they are concentrating on having antibacterial soap, hand sanitizer and wipes available throughout the synagogue. Currently at both main entrances there are hand sanitizer dispensers. In the KidZone there is a special sanitizing wipe dispenser that families can use before and after playing with toys, and while in the play space.

A part-time maintenance and cleaning staff member has been added.

With Purim this coming week, coronavirus concerns are being balanced with the command to hear the reading of the Purim megillah. Rabbi Herschel Schachter, the head of Yeshiva University and a leading Orthodox scholar, said when there are considerations of pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life, it is permissible to hear the megillah reading over the phone or on video, as long as it is live.

The Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement issued a similar ruling, that “hearing the Megillah being read via telephone or live streaming is permitted when necessary, so long as the sound is undistorted, live and not a recording.”

Many Conservative and Reform congregations livestream their services, with Birmingham’s Beth-El livestreaming its twice-daily minyan every day.

Regardless of current guidelines, all congregations stated that they are monitoring the situation and could quickly change their procedures depending on the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, everyone should follow these guidelines:

• Stay home when you are sick, especially if you have experienced a fever or flu-like symptoms.

• Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or a flexed elbow when coughing or sneezing.

• Make use of the hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.

• Throw used tissues into a bin immediately after use.

• Wash your hands thoroughly.

• Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

• Try to avoid touching your face, nose, and mouth.