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

A tribute to the mask pioneers

Bohao Liu July 11, 2020

Air pollution in China rebounds to pre-COVID level

Hannah Zhang July 11, 2020

ICE takes aim at international students

Maria Abreu July 10, 2020

Chinese students trapped by new ICE policy

Zishu Sherry Qin July 10, 2020

New ICE policy adds more turmoil to the lives of international students

Shiyu Xu July 10, 2020

Lawsuits follow ICE policy barring international students who are taking online classes

Joanna Lin Su July 10, 2020

Economists say the US needs a bold, generous fiscal response. Congress is likely to disappoint. 

Ahmed Mohamed July 9, 2020

Overseas Singaporeans have pandemic obstacles to voting

Yifan Yu July 9, 2020

Proximity sensors and hygiene stations are the “new normal”

Joanna Lin Su July 9, 2020

 Tour ticket vendors miss the hustle and bustle of Times Square

Narkwor Kwabla July 8, 2020

Dengue outbreak could be a greater threat than covid in Singapore

Yifan Yu July 8, 2020

Corporate bankruptcy: ‘A story that’s not going away’

Gaurav Sharma July 7, 2020

Beijing reopens as the second wave of coronavirus dies down

Hannah Zhang July 6, 2020

Masks or no masks?

Bohao Liu July 5, 2020

Varsity Flu

Madeline Gunderson July 3, 2020

Rail travel in China is popular during the pandemic and filled with safety measures

Bohao Liu July 3, 2020

Brazilian international student caught in US travel ban.

Marina Guimaraes July 3, 2020

MTA faces crisis following COVID shutdown

Daniel Girma July 2, 2020

Easter Market goes back to its roots

Kyla Milberger July 2, 2020

China’s Airline Industry Aims to Lure Back Passengers with Unlimited Flight Pass

Zishu Sherry Qin July 1, 2020

US corporate debt soars during coronavirus outbreak

Gaurav Sharma June 30, 2020

In Singapore, gay pride goes online

Yifan Yu June 29, 2020

The Hair Room reopens

Shiyu Xu June 29, 2020

A second wave of the coronavirus creates travel woes in Beijing

Hannah Zhang June 29, 2020

Despite a few bumps, NYC is social distancing more than not

Joanna Lin Su June 29, 2020

Backyard music lessons

Madeline Gunderson June 28, 2020

Experts say ISIS exploits chaos of global pandemic to rebuild

Marina Guimaraes June 26, 2020

Cutting through COVID

Thomas Hengge June 26, 2020

Venezuelan government leaves residents stranded in U.S. during pandemic

Maria Abreu June 23, 2020

Vulnerable communities fear eviction as COVID-19 rent morotorium comes to an end

Jonathan Sarabia June 22, 2020

Beijing is China’s new epicenter for the coronavirus

Hannah Zhang June 22, 2020

Clock is ticking for NYC restaurants even as outdoor dining resumes  

Gaurav Sharma June 20, 2020

Michigan hair salons are back in business

Kyla Milberger June 17, 2020

Seafood markets in China lose business over new COVID-19 scare

Bohao Liu June 17, 2020

China resorts to street vending to revive its economy

Hannah Zhang June 16, 2020

The East Village is open! Well, sort of

Thomas Hengge June 15, 2020

My trip home during the pandemic

Zishu Sherry Qin June 15, 2020

Popular India Square “won’t be the same again” 

Gaurav Sharma June 13, 2020

Feds will not raise its key interest rate until 2022 and project slow recovery

Zishu Sherry Qin June 11, 2020

Despite pandemic, thousands of Syrians protest against government as economy collapses

Marina Guimaraes June 10, 2020

On the frontline of two deadly viruses

Narkwor Kwabla June 10, 2020

Bronx fish market struggles to stay afloat during pandemic

Daniel Girma June 9, 2020

Venezuelans leave behind a country in crisis only to encounter a new crisis in New York

Maria Abreu June 8, 2020

China promotes street vendors to reboot the economy

Bohao Liu June 8, 2020

For the developmentally disabled, COVID-19 brings new challenges

Kyla Milberger June 7, 2020

Giving food to Staten island vulnerable communities during the lockdown

Alpha Kamara June 6, 2020

Hong Kongers gather despite COVID-19 ban on Tiananmen vigil

Yifan Yu June 4, 2020

Army returns home after completing COVID-19 mission in New York 

Maria Abreu June 4, 2020

Ailana’s life in quarantine

Talgat Almanov June 3, 2020

Venezuela has another obstacle: the pandemic

Marina Guimaraes June 3, 2020