Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

Jewish traditions during a pandemic

A zoom Passover Seder during the coronavirus shut down. Photo by @ptl826 via Twenty20

Passover marks the beginning of spring. Families eat matzah and stir charoset, eating the traditional dessert with wine for Seder. They recite Hebrew prayers while elders lead the Haggadahs, the story of Passover, which celebrates the day that Hebrews escaped bondage.  

But this April, families celebrated the tradition while isolated inside of their homes. 

Because of the coronavirus pandemic that has overwhelmed the nation, households have been observing long-established traditions through computer screens. Families are using platforms like Zoom to celebrate in isolation. 

Rabbi Gavriel Bellino, the rabbi of Sixth Street Community Synagogue in the East Village, experienced the struggle of families who yearned to celebrate but couldn’t risk contamination. 

“Because you know, people are used to these big family meals. They’re used to grandparents with their grandchildren,” he said. “It was like ‘your grandchildren are going to kill you.’ It became the inverse of the normal Passover, and we define it by community and we think about multi-generational, and it’s precisely those things that you couldn’t experience.” 

Synagogues across New York have closed their doors in fear of spreading coronavirus, and at a press conference on March 27, Mr. De Blasio said that synagogues holding in person services would be met with enforcement agents.

“I want to say to all those who are preparing for the potential of religious services this weekend: If you go to your synagogue, if you go to your church, and attempt to hold services after having been told so often not to, our enforcement agents will have no choice but to shut down those services,” he said. 

But in late April, mourners gathered in Brooklyn for a funeral to honor a prominent rabbi who died of coronavirus. It was held by Hasidic and Orthodox communities of Williamsburg, and over 2,500 people attended. According to Yeshiva World, the funeral was for Rabbi Chaim Mertz, and was the first event in which Mr. De Blasio personally participated in dispersing crowds, and posted on his Twitter page. 

“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed,” he said. “I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period.”

Rabbi Bellino, who struggled with the closure of his own synagogue, said that generalizations about a group can be harmful even if the mayor is trying to protect them. 

“I understand the desperation, when you’re trying your best to keep people safe, and you see people flagrantly violating that you lose your mind,” he said. “No good can come of broad stroking a whole group of people. Even if he just said the ‘Hasidic’ community, it would have been offensive because a lot of the Hasidic community is taking this very seriously.” 

Like other traditions, synagogues have been organizing memorials at home to grieve through Zoom. 

For Rabbi Bellino, his synagogue wanted to honor the death of their music teacher and conducted the memorial online. 

“He had passed away last year and they had planned this memorial event, to remember him and honor him on the anniversary of his passing and so they did that on Zoom,” he said. “They’ve limited the number of people that can attend a funeral. There are no funerals being held, or the burial event is limited to two or three people and the rabbi.”

Because of the restrictions on holding funerals, Rabbi Bellino said that people are holding “Zoom Shivas.” “Shiva” is where families mourn together after the burial of the deceased. 

But for many people, Shiva hasn’t been the same in isolation. 

“Obviously part of the tragedy is either people being taken away from us way too quickly, suddenly, but also to lose people that just died because people die who then can’t be mourned according to these traditions, these ways that people find meaning in,” he said. “They can’t do that or they can’t have that connection and next thing you know, they’re gone and there hasn’t been that system of dealing with them.”

But he said that Zoom Shiva has been an alternative for people who have no other way to honor the deceased. He said that his friend had a Shiva for his father. 

“They did not Zoom the burial or funeral, but they did have a Zoom Shiva. It was a little strange, but it was also really nice.” 

But some people found it impersonal to be honoring a person through technology. Specifically, when a friend suddenly dies from COVID-19. 

“It was horrible that he died.  It was tough to attend his memorial service via zoom, rather than in person,” said Eric Morris, a synagogue member in Syracuse, New York. “It was really hard.” 

Morris said that he hadn’t seen his friend in a long time so it was difficult saying goodbye to him online, but he said that he enjoys continuing some traditions on Zoom.

“My wife attends Saturday morning service on Zoom with our synagogue,” he said. “We had a Friday night service. We meet people from our synagogue about two to three times per week online.” 

He said that Orthodox families are still holding funerals but are abiding by social distancing guidelines. 

“A friend called me and asked me to come. We were all six feet apart, everyone was wearing masks,” he said. “It was a regular funeral, less than 20 people attended.” 

He said that it was important for the family to commemorate death with an in-person ceremony. 

“Instead of a zoom, the Orthodox rabbi requested an in-person funeral. It was just immediate family, and they had to do it in-person.” 

But some synagogue members are embracing online resources, and are joining online clubs with Chabad groups to stay in communication.

“It’s a Jewish women’s group, it’s a book club, it’s for current events, and they talk about helping out people in the community,” said Robin Gersen, a native New Yorker. “I had this mahjong game I used to play periodically, and now they are playing online.” 

She said that her uncle died of coronavirus complications and her family had a Zoom memorial to honor him. 

“My uncle Al was 70, and he passed away in mid-April. He died in a nursing home in Queens,” she said. “No one was able to see him in the nursing home, so that was the hard part.” 

But she said that technology helped her family cope when it was all too clear that being together wouldn’t be safe. 

“In March, they wouldn’t allow any visitors. His wife and daughter weren’t able to go visit him for the last month of his life, but he was able to speak with his grandchildren on FaceTime.”  



Other Stories in Special Report: Shutdown: The Coronavirus

During pandemic, Rio de Janeiro residents fear police

Marina Guimaraes May 27, 2020

Recovering from drugs during a pandemic

Kyla Milberger May 26, 2020

  Covid-19 takes away the communal joy at Eid-al-Fitr celebration

Narkwor Kwablaa May 25, 2020

Beloved old school game sees boom in numbers during coronavirus quarantine

Michael Yang May 15, 2020

Coronavirus leaves the fate of some beloved New York events uncertain

Emily Glass May 15, 2020

South Africa’s lockdown exposes inequalities

Kathleen Taylor May 14, 2020

Churchgoers find spiritual growth through virtual services 

Harrison Tsui May 14, 2020

” I’m working with COVID patients tonight”

Margaret Guzman May 14, 2020

Singles connect on Tinder to fight quarantine blues 

Yaroslava Bondar May 14, 2020

The Bible and Coronavirus

Jonathan Sarabia May 13, 2020

Doctor uses social media to give advice and hope

Sope Aluko May 12, 2020

First Sandy, Now COVID: Lower East Side Activists Grapple With Construction for Climate Project

Izzie Ramirez May 12, 2020

Dating during a pandemic

Bessie Liu May 12, 2020

The last reponders

Shiyu Xu May 11, 2020

When the pandemic hits a shelter for abused boys 

Amanda Perez Pintado May 11, 2020

Portugal contains the coronavirus despite Spain’s woes

Catarina Lamelas Moura May 11, 2020

Warm weather brings crowds to Prospect Park

Bessie Liu May 11, 2020

New York coronavirus numbers continue to fall

Jonathan Sarabia May 10, 2020

Living through the pandemic while a loved one is behind bars

Amanda Perez Pintado May 10, 2020

Pandemic ends all high school senior year traditions

Jonathan Sarabia May 10, 2020

Coronavirus might have caused the death of many children who were misdiagnosed 

Ximena Del Cerro May 9, 2020

Farmers destroy staggering amounts of food even as food lines grow

Karen Camela Watson May 9, 2020

Coronavirus pandemic threatens border towns in Mexico

Sydney Fishman and Ximena Del Cerro May 9, 2020

Pence’s press secretary tests positive for Covid-19

Shiyu Xu May 8, 2020

During pandemic NYC tenants in limbo

John DiLillo May 8, 2020

Llamas could be coronavirus heroes

Catarina Lamelas Moura May 8, 2020

Lawmakers, Legal Experts Clash Over Much Needed Business Interruption Insurance Coverage for Small Businesses

James Duffy May 8, 2020

Rent relief in NY, JetBlue’s flyover and Trump’s valet tests positive for coronavirus in today’s news

Amanda Perez Pintado May 7, 2020

Coronavirus tears through the Navajo Nation 

Amanda Perez Pintado May 7, 2020

In Singapore, spaces close, but restaurants open

Yifan Yu May 6, 2020

Press secretary calls Fauci testifying before congress “publicity stunt”

Kathleen Taylor May 6, 2020

Harry Potter and the Magical Malady of the Movies

Ahad Sanwari May 6, 2020

Trump speaks to human loss, Cuomo lashes out at President’s comments

Catarina Lamelas Moura May 5, 2020

PPE in the city

Narkwor Kwabla May 5, 2020

Boring Politics is Good Politics – Especially in a Pandemic

Serafina Smith May 5, 2020

Stuck: Life under quarantine in Rio de Janeiro

Marina Guimaraes May 5, 2020

New York’s Emptiness

Maria Abreu May 5, 2020

In an Airbnb Room During Lockdown in Jamaica, Queens

Dayo Paul May 4, 2020

What Temporary Means: Portraits of family at home

Guillermo Manning May 4, 2020

Stockholm Stays Open

Tatiana Kireeva May 4, 2020

NYC now producing its own coronavirus test kits

Maureen Mullarkey May 3, 2020

Miss you, mom: Spending Ramadan together through a screen

Maznah Shehzad May 3, 2020

Life in front of a screen

Patricio Zenklussen May 3, 2020

Coronavirus and the Shincheonji

Bessie Liu May 3, 2020

It’s The Little Things

Sope Aluko May 3, 2020

Days In, Days Out: A doctor’s life during Covid-19

Elsa Benamouzig May 2, 2020

Contactless: Food Delivery amid COVID-19

Keighton Li May 2, 2020

Hasidic South Williamsburg Resists the New Reality

Leo Schwartz May 2, 2020

Solace in Suburbia

Susanne Schweitzer May 2, 2020

Puerto Rico rocked by 5.4 magnitude earthquake

Amanda Perez Pintado May 2, 2020