Defiant private minyanim happening despite high risks

  • pray
Private minyanim are taking place in the homes of South African Jews in spite of Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein’s decision not to open shuls yet and warnings by medical experts about the dangers of Jews gathering to pray during the COVID-19 pandemic.
by TALI FEINBERG | Jun 11, 2020

A Johannesburg rabbi speaking on condition of anonymity told the SA Jewish Report that he is independently hosting a group of about 12-14 young men in an open area for a regular minyan. “I think it’s a necessity. These same people are going to work and to the shops. We are taking all the precautions – using sanitiser and everyone is wearing a mask. If something were to happen, we would immediately close it down.”

He says this private minyan “isn’t as popular as one might think”, but this group approached him, and he saw no reason to say no. It is not associated with any shul or congregation. He understands that the massive outbreaks of COVID-19 in Jewish communities overseas have been attributed to Jews gathering for prayer. However to his mind, “people were already sick, and were gathering in small shuls without taking precautions” when that happened.

He understands the chief rabbi’s decision to keep shuls closed. “He has to decide what’s best for the whole community and for shuls where it’s much more difficult to enforce the rules. So it makes perfect sense not to open the shuls.”

Should a member of his minyan contract the virus and pass it on to a family member, “It would be difficult to point the source of infection to the minyan, as people still go to the shops and to work,” he says.

The rabbi’s comments come as Jewish communities around the globe are reeling from disproportionate losses to COVID-19.

Professor Barry Schoub, the founding and former director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases of South Africa and professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand, says, “We know that congregate environments are, in particular, one of the most important super-spreading events as has been clearly documented by several outbreaks in houses of worship. Israel’s interior minister and the head of the Shas party, Aryeh Deri, recently claimed that 70% of COVID-19 cases in Israel were in the Haredi communities, known to have held illegal minyanim.

“These private/secret minyanim, now in Johannesburg, in spite of their assurances of strictly adhering to coronavirus infection-control precautions, are simply putting people’s lives at risk. Furthermore they aren’t only threatening their own communities but also, because of the highly infectious nature of the virus, the community at large.”

A Johannesburg doctor with 40 years of experience has witnessed minyanim gathering in the homes and gardens of residences or has been told about them from reliable sources. “I’m 100% sure that it’s happening,” she says, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“From the beginning of lockdown, there has been a minyan in an apartment block – you can hear them saying Kaddish. There was a minyan in a home over Pesach under lockdown level five. I’ve seen elderly people visit the home of a doctor – that has a Sefer Torah – at mincha.” She has seen large groups gather for a Brit Milah, and now under lockdown level three, has heard of people having 30 guests for Shabbos. “These gatherings include people with co-morbidities. I know of a man who almost died a few years ago, who attended a private minyan in someone’s garden.”

In her opinion, the safety of these private minyanim depends on their practices. Are they reading from the Torah and crowding around it? Are they touching the Torah? Are they wearing masks? Are they sharing siddurim and chumashim? Are they sanitising? Are they having Kiddush after the service and sharing food? Are they going home to family members who might have co-morbidities?

“We know so little about this virus. We can’t be careful enough. In these minyanim, who is supervising what happens? The point is, we need to think of our whole community, not only ourselves,” she says. “Many important rabbis and frum [observant] doctors overseas have spoken about the danger of gathering to pray, and have explicitly said don’t have private minyanim.”

She can’t understand why some members of the community have been so lax in sticking to the restrictions. “Maybe it’s because we haven’t had major losses? Maybe we are making up our own laws or misinterpreting them? But the bottom line is pikuach nefesh – saving life above all else. Rabbis and doctors should set an example.”

Schoub agrees. “As Minister Deri said, we need to do very deep soul-searching. By flouting the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, praying in these minyanim is a sin, even if outwardly clothed as a mitzvah,” he says. “Their davening is simply mumbling words, and I’m convinced their prayers aren’t being heard by the Almighty.”

Said Goldstein: “We can take great pride as a community in how our rabbis and shuls have worked together with unity of purpose in carefully balancing the need to protect the health and safety of our community with the need to return to communal prayer.

“We’ve taken the path of caution and care, and we’ve done so as a team, working together in the best interests of the community. After a series of robust discussions with all key stakeholders – shul rabbis, chairmen, leading medical experts, and others – the consensus is that we aren’t reopening at this moment. Those discussions are continuing as we continue to evaluate the readiness of our shuls to implement the government’s strict health and safety protocols as well as the broader situation in the country at large.

“It’s deeply unfortunate that there are a few individuals who have broken with the unified responsible approach of all our shuls to remain closed, and are running informal minyanim in private homes. These private minyanim are particularly vulnerable when it comes to matters of health and safety as they aren’t subject to the regulatory oversight that a shul would be. As such, it’s totally unacceptable for these private minyanim to operate, both from a legal and a halachic standpoint.”

Shaun Zagnoev, the chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said, “We don’t have any specific information on minyanim that have opened. However, we would consider it to be extremely dangerous for our entire community if they did, based on what our scientific experts are saying. This conduct is also contrary to the guidelines issued by the chief rabbi.”

4 Comments

  1. 4 Anonymous 13 Jun
    Hi,

    I wish to remain anonymous.

    On Shabbos there is close to 20 men that come into our complex in fairmount, 24 livingstone street.

    There are also medical doctors who are working at public hospitals at these minyanim.

    I have refused to join as per the psak of the beth din.

    I feel this is a pekuach nefesh issue.

    Please advise what I should do as I feel this is not correct.
  2. 3 David Berzen 26 Jun
    These communities that are attending services and having large gatherings for Shabbat and Chagim are placing the entire Jewish community and by definition the entire population at risk.
    These must stop immediately! There are many other options for dovening.
    Our health is the number 1 priority. The community should take action to shut down these congregations.
    immediately.
    The anonymous Rabbi and all other leaders of services should be ashamed of themselves.

  3. 2 Uri Sher 05 Jul
    Quote:
    "Aryeh Deri, recently claimed that 70% of COVID-19 cases in Israel were in the Haredi communities, known to have held illegal minyanim."

    FALSE !!! No such statement was made. If the article had stated 20%, then it could have been true. FYI: in Har Nof where I live, minyanim are held according to the strict guidelines of the ministry of health. Masks covering BOTH nose & mouth, sanitizing material readily available, 2 meter distance between non family members, no touching of mezuzot or kissing of Torah. Nothing illegal about that. FYI, bars and restaurants are open as well & that is currently where a lot of the infections take place. 
  4. 1 aVI 13 Jul
    I am south african born and here on the advice of the Gedolei Hador we minyanim, i wear mask and take protection, I dont understand if one can go to the hairdress , supermarket , with 100s of people around, why are your shuls still closed.

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