Response: Readiness and Responsibility

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Response: Readiness and Responsibility
Heshie Billet

Rabbi Yaakov Jaffe’s essay, “When our shuls re-open, whom are they re-opening for?,” is a well thought out, responsible, and coherent statement. He leaves room for all options relating to returning to communal prayer. His words are responsible and courageous. In my opinion, there are some other factors that must be considered, in addition to all that R. Jaffe outlines. My perspective is limited to the United States and, in a sense, to the reality of my own region of New York’s Nassau County, one of the hardest hit areas in our state.

About three weeks ago the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union formulated guidelines for shul re-openings, which suggested times to resume communal prayer services and strategies as to how to maximize the numbers of those services under medically safe conditions.

First, it is important to note that every area of our country is different. In some areas there have been relatively few cases. Elsewhere there have been a moderate amount of sick people. In some areas there have been many people who are stricken with the virus. It is important to note that the legal authority for determining when people can resume communal services is not in the hands of the federal government, but in the hands of the governor of each individual state. This is an instance where states’ rights are supreme.

Secondly, the RCA/OU guidelines stipulated a minimum two week period of waiting after the government allows gatherings of ten or more:

We Are Not Yet Ready To Open
Our Poskim and our medical advisors are urging continued caution, as we must maintain the priority of our mandate to preserve life (pikuah nefesh). In addition, given the unique social patterns of our communities – including daily shul and shiur attendance, myriad life-cycle events, and high levels of inter-communal travel – our community is at a higher risk for rapid disease transmission, and has already suffered terrible losses as a result. As such, we must not be in a rush to normalize, and must proceed with the greatest caution and care. The resumption of communal prayer and other communal activities should not be considered until – at the very least – the successful and verified safe completion of the local government’s first stages of communal reopening, i.e.,  at least two weeks after the local governments have allowed public gatherings of more than ten persons, and have not seen upticks in disease. 

The Governor of New York allowed gatherings of ten on May 21. According to the RCA/OU guidelines it means that in New York we can begin communal prayer on June 4. I believe that this is a practice which should be followed in each state as per the guidelines of their respective governors.

Please take note that the halakhic authorities guiding the Orthodox Union include: Rav Hershel Schacter, Rav Mordechai Willig, Rav Asher Weiss, and Rav Dovid Cohen. The latter had actually encouraged keeping shuls open on the Shabbat after Purim (March 14) when others closed. He felt that communal prayer is a powerful weapon for a believing Jew. We all believe that. Presently, he has changed his understanding, and we recognize the courage required to take adopt a different position about how we should conduct ourselves. I am certain that he still believes, as do we all, in the power of communal prayer.

During the first seven to eight weeks of the lockdown, there were break-away groups, either led by rabbis or acting on their own, which either violated the law of the land (dina de-malkhuta) or who violated the agreement of all community synagogues to not hold services. They were guilty of seceding from the larger Jewish community. These were not acts of piety, but acts of selfishness, and on occasion they also desecrated God’s name when the police came to shut them down. These same people who were potentially exposed to contamination at services then went to supermarkets and could have contaminated others. They argued that if the stores were open, then the synagogues must be open. There was one major flaw in that argument: You do not need a quorum to pray. Prayer when home alone is valid prayer. You do need a supermarket in order to be able to eat. And one must eat in order to live.

Now, as we begin to plan for re-opening, why do we insist on the  additional fourteen day waiting period? Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt reported in one in his weekly hospital COVID updates: “The CDC May 15th updated guidelines state that the incubation period for COVID-19 extends to 14 days, with a median time of 4-5 days from exposure to symptom onset. 97.5% of persons with COVID-19 develop symptoms within 11.5 days of infection.”

So why do we encourage people to avoid it at this time? Dr. Glatt also shared the following in his weekly hospital report:

A new analysis from the Urban Health Collaborative at the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University says nearly 250,000 people in the nation’s 30 largest cities are alive today because of strict stay-at-home orders issued by local and state governments. Stay-at-home orders likely reduced the number of coronavirus deaths by 232,878 and prevented 2.1 million people from requiring hospitalization. Wow. This analysis showed what might have happened had Americans not taken the drastic social distancing steps ordered and encouraged over the last few months. We in our communities have certainly seen the evidence of this with our own eyes as boruch Hashem we successfully flattened the curve. But we must remain unbelievably vigilant that it doesn’t come back with a vengeance.

Rav Mayer Twersky of Yeshiva University has written two lengthy responsa urging great caution before returning to communal prayer. He has pointed out that the medical community, while highly professional, still do not fully understand this virus, its behavior and consequences. They have had to retract previously held theories. I heard one very competent Orthodox Jewish doctor declare about ten weeks ago: “I would rather have Corona than the flu.” At the time that he said it, this reflected medical knowledge as widely understood at that moment. Today, he is among those urging us to stay away from prayer gatherings. 

I have read essays written by some highly competent infectious disease specialists of international renown. They include the Belgian born Dr. Peter Piot of The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who in 1976 was one of the discoverers of the Ebola Virus. They write about the unknown, but of the possible. People who have had the virus and who have recovered may still suffer long-lasting, potentially life threatening effects on their cardio-vascular and renal systems. 

Is there a way to have a gathering of ten people for prayer services and remain safe? From all that I have read, I believe it is possible to have such a gathering. It requires appropriate social distancing, everyone wearing a face mask, and everyone bringing their own prayer paraphernalia. If there is a Torah scroll, only the one reader can stand with it. It is advisable to start from Nishmat on Shabbat and Yom Tov, or Yishtabah on weekdays, and continue until the end. The earlier parts of the service should be said privately before arriving. At the conclusion there should be no socializing, and everyone should return home.

In fact, I believe that according to the guidelines of the Agudah, such a service is possible and may be conducted today. I want to emphasize that I believe that those are responsible guidelines, although the RCA/OU guidelines differ, they too, are responsible.

From my point of view, if one chooses to join a minyan that complies fully with his governor’s criteria, he must know how to safely conduct himself. However, I believe full compliance with RCA/OU guidelines, as indicated above, is the safest choice. I understand the need of a devout Jew to have communal services. I want to be clear. I am not endorsing such services. I will not attend any services until competent doctors and the halakhic authorities that I follow recommend them. Nevertheless, I understand the need that some people have for them.

One of the critical factors in returning to communal service must be the ability to comply with and enforce the safety guidelines for such services. My doctor told me of a patient who was diagnosed with COVID after eight weeks in home lockdown. How was he infected? He started attending a street minyan where people did not wear masks and were not safely distanced. Were these people intentionally careless? I do not think so. We are creatures of habit. A lifetime of social behavior cannot be changed by two months in isolation. Without the presence of a respected person of authority, I fear that errors with dangerous consequences could occur

All responsible organizations are trying to do their very best to protect their constituents. None of us really knows if ours are the best choices. The medical community does not know if there will be a second wave. They do not know how vicious or benign that wave might be. In the 1918 flu pandemic there were two additional waves, each more vicious than the previous. That pandemic killed over 100 million people. It only went away when the flu virus mutated to a less virulent form. 

Rabbi Jaffe’s excellent essay is a worthy contribution, but context and the realities of the human condition must be considered as well.

Heshie Billet is the rabbi of the Young Israel of Woodmere.

[Published on May 27, 2020]

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