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Keep your distance and stay at home, plead communal leaders

  • Zev Krengel (5a)
Jewish communal leaders pleaded with certain members of the community to cease weddings and private minyanin (prayer quorums of ten men) in a desperate bid to halt the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus – to no avail.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Mar 26, 2020

In spite of couples having been warned over the past two weeks of the dangers of communal gatherings, many went ahead anyway, flouting strict social distancing measures and, according to communal leaders, endangering the lives of others.

While they may have cut back on their wedding guest list dramatically and moved to smaller venues at the last minute, it’s understood that celebratory dancing still took place. In the past two weeks, there were at least four weddings in Johannesburg.

Zev Krengel, the vice-president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) lambasted people for attending private minyanim and couples for hosting small wedding parties, however scaled down they were, which he said violated the strict measures put in place to halt the spread of the virus.

“This is not a time to be happy while hundreds of people die every day from this virus. I begged couples to party only when the nightmare is over, but they went ahead anyway. It’s disgusting. I pleaded with men not to attend private home minyanim, but they thought they could anyway.”

“This is a war. The enemy [the virus] loves simchas. That’s where it lurks. It loves rogue minyanim – that’s it’s breeding ground. It’s beyond belief that people still don’t get it,” he said.

Dr Richard Friedland, the chief executive of Netcare and retired virologist Professor Barry Schoub were asked by the board to explain the severity of the disease in an urgent memorandum issued on Monday urging people to comply with the regulations. This was done after it emerged that a guest at one wedding had tested positive for the virus.

A message sent by the bridal couple to their guests read, “We are sending this message to all guests who attended our wedding on 15 March. We firstly wanted to thank you all for being there to celebrate our simcha. And secondly, in the interests of transparency, we wanted to let you know that one of the guests has tested positive for coronavirus.”

Dr Friedland told the SA Jewish Report, “We are entering a critical phase of this pandemic in South Africa. It’s up to every one of us to take co-responsibility. This is the plea, this is the cry we are making.

“When people behave irresponsibly, it has devastating, far-reaching consequences. Social distancing is the single most important factor in flattening the curve and preventing the pandemic from spreading. The global precautions and recommendations are based on sound scientific epidemiological expertise.”

He said people who were asymptomatic were still capable of spreading the virus. “This is the big danger and concern, and that’s why we have a lockdown.”

“When people say we are over-reacting and the measures are too strict – draconian even – I tell them that even if we save one life, then all of this would have been worth it. That one life could be your loved one.”

It’s understood that a further three weddings are taking place in Johannesburg this week, making it just in time before the nationwide lockdown which begins on Thursday night.

Thankfully, said Krengel he understands that these weddings are following strict protocols and couples are being extra vigilant, having scaled down the events completely to the bare minimum of guests including only immediate family.

Chuppahs are being conducted via video conferencing app Zoom, followed by a very small dinner with strictly no dancing or elderly people.

“It’s difficult to postpone a wedding from a religious point of view, this is understood,” said Krengel. “But you don’t need pole holders, a retinue, and guests to get married. You need a rabbi and two witnesses, then go home and party when the pandemic is over.”

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein told the SA Jewish Report, “Let us all pull together as a community at this time. It’s so important for each of us to take personal responsibility to respect and comply with the president’s regulations designed to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“One of the highest Torah values is the protection and preservation of life – doing everything in our power to protect ourselves and others from harm. “Therefore, adhering to the stipulations of the lockdown isn’t just a legal responsibility in terms of the laws of the state, it’s a sacred duty in the eyes of G-d. It’s our mitzvah [commandment] at this crucial time.”

At the time of going to press, South Africa had 709 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. Two members of the community are currently in intensive care on ventilators. Their names are known to the SA Jewish Report.

This week, the Jerusalem Post reported that a quarter of Israelis who have contracted the coronavirus in Israel have been infected through contact with another infected person in a synagogue. These figures were released by an advisory group to the health ministry on Tuesday.

According to the data, the most common place to contract COVID-19 in Israel is synagogues, where 24% of all infections to date have occurred, with another 5% contracted in yeshivas.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Moshe Freedman, the Rabbi of the New West End Synagogue in Bayswater, London, this week said those attending private minyanim during the coronavirus lockdown are “idol worshippers” and he would deny aliyah to anyone who attended one.

Friedland and Schoub said in a joint statement, “As health professionals and experts in the field of infectious diseases epidemiology, we cannot underestimate the unprecedented danger which the current epidemic of COVID-19 virus represents for our community and country as a whole.

“Scientific studies in South Africa have shown that the country is nearing the tipping point of more than 100 local transmissions of the virus, which would trigger an outbreak of a 100 000 cases in less than a month and thousands of deaths.”

Said Krengel, “No matter how much explaining has been done, people still like to look for loopholes. They still want to have 20 people at the seder. This is a matter of life and death. By the time we realise our error, it will be too late. This isn’t the time for simchas, sederim or minyanim.”

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