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COVID-19 ravages Jewish communities abroad

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STEVEN GRUZD

So said Israeli journalist Zvika Klein on a Zoom webinar hosted by the South African Zionist Federation and the Israel Centre this month.

“Jews around the world have unfortunately been in worse situations compared to other communities in general,” said Klein, who consistently covers diaspora communities in the Israeli media. “Jewish communities were among the first to have a major coronavirus infection problem. Initially they had higher proportions of infections than the general population in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Sweden, for example.” This has, however, changed as the virus has spread to poorer communities.

Klein pointed to the festival of Purim on 10 March as a major reason for the rapid initial spread of coronavirus through synagogues. It preceded government decrees on social distancing, self-isolation, and lockdown. “Hugging, kissing, and closeness to family heightened the risks of infection,” Klein said.

He also remarked that conspiracy theories blaming Jews for the pandemic have swirled on the internet. Some claim that Jews invented COVID-19 just so Israel could cash in with a vaccine. High infections among religious communities have prompted accusations that Jews think they are special and don’t have to listen to the rules.

Italy was the first European country with a major COVID-19 outbreak. On 20 April, Italy had almost 179 000 cases and more than 23 600 deaths. Many younger Italian Jews have emigrated or work in other parts of the world, so it’s an aging population with many of the elderly succumbing.

Italy was among the first to advise on key halachic questions, forbidding close contact and kissing the Torah, mezuzah, or tallit. The chief rabbi of Rome decided that Megilat Esther could be read over the internet. The community secured kosher meat for Pesach only at the last minute as its usual shochetim (slaughterers) couldn’t travel from Israel.

France’s 450 000 Jews, the largest community in Europe, was also hard hit by the virus. France had almost 113 000 infections and 19 718 deaths by 20 April. Its rabbinic authorities closed the mikvehs and stopped circumcisions. Kosher food ordered for Pesach got stuck due to flight interruptions and travel bans.

The UK hasn’t been spared either. By 6 April, 55 Jews had died due to coronavirus, 2.3% of the confirmed national figure at the time. The country had 120 000 cases and 16 000 deaths by 20 April.

In Sweden, with a small Jewish community, Jews have died at a rate 14 times higher than the general population. Many were Holocaust survivors over the age of 80. “But it doesn’t just infect old people,” Klein said. “Hospitals worldwide are full of men in their 30s. This should remind us all to be careful and obey the rules.”

Counting Jewish coronavirus cases in the US is difficult given the different levels of religious observance and assimilation. But the Chassidic community has been severely affected, Klein said. A big challenge for the ultra-Orthodox is that “they have been educated that science is bad, and now they are supposed to listen to scientists”, said Klein. It’s important to engage this community in a different way, and Israel has created a YouTube channel providing health information in Yiddish. In US haredi communities, “It took a very long time to see a behaviour change. Funerals and weddings still drew large crowds even after social distancing warnings were issued.”

“After coronavirus, will halacha be at the same place it was before?” asked Klein. The pandemic has prompted several religious conundrums. In Israel, before Pesach, a debate ensued on whether Zoom could be used for the seder. Most rabbis said no, but a small group of Moroccan rabbis said it would be permissible if connected before the festival commenced. Services have been broadcast three times on weekdays on haredi radio stations to accompany people in prayer, sanctioned by Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, but Ashkenazi authorities don’t consider this a minyan (prayer quorum).

Communities are struggling financially, and in the US, many Jewish community centres have had to lay off workers. “Coronavirus could be a turning point for organised Jewish life. Umbrella organisations, shuls, and youth movements have had to reinvent themselves, and many have gone online. They will have to continue to work, live, and thrive in a situation with lower donations from their members,” Klein said.

Klein noted that South Africa’s Jewish community had shown leadership and had been proactive in shutting its institutions even before the president ordered the nationwide lockdown. It had learned from other communities’ tragic experiences.

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