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Board of Deputies and medical experts caution against opening shuls

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Places of worship have been given the green light to resume services across South Africa next week, but medical experts and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) are urging religious leaders not to open the doors of our shuls just yet.
by JORDAN MOSHE AND TALI FEINBERG | May 28, 2020

“Medical experts have agreed that there is a great danger in opening shuls at this very precarious time,” SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn told the SA Jewish Report on Wednesday evening.

SAJBD national chairperson Shaun Zagnoev said, “We are concerned by the medical evidence which shows that there have been mini outbreaks wherever people gather. Professor Barry Schoub, the founding and former director of the NICD [National Institute for Communicable Diseases of South Africa] and one of our advisors has noted that the reopening of shuls at this stage of the COVID-19 epidemic in South Africa would pose a very serious threat to the Jewish community.

“In several countries in Europe and in the United States, especially in New York, Jewish communities have suffered grievously with far too many deaths and serious illness. The Jewish population of these countries has been more severely affected in numbers of deaths and serious illness than any other. In Britain and France respectively there have been five and six times the number of deaths proportionate to their population.’”

Netcare Chief Executive Dr Richard Friedland told the SAJBD, “We need to be extremely cautious in regard to the dangers of a potential ‘post lockdown euphoria’. In the 1918/1919 Spanish flu pandemic, it was the second wave or ‘peak’ that followed the initial relaxation of the first lockdown that caused the most deaths [almost 50 million]. In South Africa, we are easing the lockdown and we haven’t yet experienced the peak of new daily infections, so we can’t afford to lessen our vigilance in any way.”

“To date, we have placed substantial reliance on our medical experts, and believe that to deviate from taking their advice now would be ill-considered,” said Zagnoev.

“It’s much too early,” said Schoub. “It should be one of the last restrictions to go.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Tuesday night that South African places of worship, including mosques, churches, and shuls, may reopen under strict conditions during lockdown level 3 as of 1 June. These include limiting attendance to 50 people per service, wearing face masks, sanitising and social distancing, as well as routine cleansing of the prayer space.

The announcement came after extensive discussions with religious leaders from across the faith spectrum, said Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein.

Just as he was faced with the tough decision to close our shuls at the start of the pandemic in South Africa, he is now faced with another tough decision about whether to reopen them.

“Last Wednesday night, there was a Zoom meeting of the president, senior cabinet ministers, and religious leaders from across the country,” the chief rabbi told the SA Jewish Report. “The president explained his philosophy, that the country was moving from the stage of lockdown into finding ways to cope with the disease and prevent its spread. He gave this framework, and asked for comment from religious leaders.”

Leader after leader from across all faiths asked the president to allow reopening places of worship under strict health conditions. The president agreed to take all this input into consideration in subsequent discussions.

“When the president made his Sunday speech and didn’t give details [about places of worship], he was still working out what to do. After that, he had further discussions with various religious bodies during the week and came to this conclusion.”

Goldstein said he was in back-to-back meetings with medical and communicable disease experts, the Beth Din, rabbis, and lay leaders of shuls to work out the community’s response to the president’s allowance.

“All the decisions will be communicated to our community as soon as possible, bearing in mind that the president’s change of legal position is effective only from Monday, 1 June,” he said.

Other medical professionals have backed up the view that it’s inadvisable to rush into reopening shuls.

“Any gathering of people has inherent risk, with singing and other religious activities potentially increasing this risk and promoting the spread of disease,” said epidemiologist Dr Natacha Berkowitz.

“Right at the beginning of the epidemic, we saw clusters of cases coming from religious gatherings, even when the gatherings were restricted to less than 50 people. In my opinion, while theoretically it could be a low-risk activity, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

Jeffrey Dorfman, an associate professor of virology at Stellenbosch University, encourages a cautious and flexible approach to reopening, starting outside the Western Cape, and being prepared to pause services if events warrant it.

“Services should meet in very large rooms or even outside in shul courtyards,” he said, “with limits on the number participating in the service – possibly fewer than the currently mooted 50 per event”.

Beyond social distancing and masks, Dorfman said that siddurim, tallitot, and chumashim shouldn’t be shared, and that symptoms, contact history, and temperature screening should occur before entry into shul.

“In the spirit of caution, the chazzan and the Torah reader should be far away from anyone else. Even the person having an aliyah should step back once having said the bracha,” he said.

“There will need to be thought about the rules concerning children who will be unlikely to distance themselves socially when seeing their friends for the first time in months.”

Said Schoub, “Safety measures such as disinfection, hygiene, and sanitation can’t guarantee the prevention of transmission. If they are rigorously carried out and maintained, they could minimise the risk. However, these measures have to be scrupulously maintained, and that’s not guaranteed.

“I understand that restrictions need to be removed to kickstart the economy,” he said. “People are suffering, and this needs to be weighed against public-health considerations. However, I don’t see how houses of worship come into that equation.”

Dr Leon Fine, professor of biomedical science and medicine, speaking from Los Angeles, told the SA Jewish Report, “My advice would be to resist opening for at least another month or maybe two. A shul is an ideal environment to spread the virus. It’s definitely not worth the risk at this stage.”

Dr Alan Rabinowitz, associate clinical professor of cardiology at St Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, said, “It’s premature [to open shuls] given that cases in South Africa are still on the rise. I would advise shuls to wait at least another month in order to observe the trajectory of the disease.”

“The prescribed measures are likely to reduce the risk, but they aren’t likely to eliminate transmission,” said Professor Gert van Zyl, pathologist and consultant virologist at Stellenbosch University. “It’s difficult to weigh up the possible risk of interaction against its emotional and health benefits.

“What makes COVID-19 so difficult to control is that some people may be very infectious without any recognisable symptoms. There are indications that the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads not only by large droplets but also by aerosols [small droplet nuclei], which makes it more difficult to control,” he said. “Therefore, many factors are important: the time people spend together; the number of people sharing an enclosed space; how well the rooms or spaces are ventilated; is there natural sunlight; and whether the surfaces are cleaned regularly.”

3 Comments

  1. 3 Edwine 29 May
    A very good and informative article..
    I would strongly agree that Synagogues and all places of worship remain closed at least until September, when hopefully,by New Year the worst of the pandemic in South Africa
    is fully under control and the weather is much warmer and then something to look forward to. Now in winter is not the right time to open any place of worship.
    The Jewish community has always been vigilant.Do the right thing and keep the Shul's closed.
    G-d bless
    ES
  2. 2 Gavin Brett 01 Jun
    Very interesting article.  The question which arises then, is how we can send kids to school, especially those that are under 13yrs?
    How can the schools even consider little ones attending?
  3. 1 M. Arenstein 02 Jun
    Please let me know what percentage of the experts actually went to Shul 3 times a day, every day. Surely if we strictly follow the government guidelines and most shuls can space people many metes apart, also being of reasonable intelligence to comply, why should we wait. In Israel they opened shuls initially with 19 people and everyone brought their own books. I hope you will reconsider urgently. Thanks 

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