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.”  

 


Tags


Other Stories in Special Report: Shutdown: The Coronavirus

The Spirit of Little Haiti

Savannah Daniels October 14, 2020

Small business owners hope for future relief

Courtney Guarino October 2, 2020

Brooklyn Book Festival held virtually

Chuyan Jiang September 28, 2020

NYC Restaurant owners worry about maintaining business during winter 

Isabel Beer September 27, 2020

The pandemic is causing mental health struggles for many Latinos

Paola Michelle Ortiz September 24, 2020

Politically divided family can agree on one thing, rallies are bad during a pandemic

Michelle Diaz September 23, 2020

New Yorkers are vulnerable to mental issues due to pandemic

Sughnen Yongo-Okochi September 23, 2020

Healthcare professionals struggle with Trump’s decisions during pandemic

Tori Luecking September 23, 2020

Some Americans Say “Not So Fast” on Operation Warp Speed

James Pothen September 23, 2020

Trump voters unfazed by morality of Trump’s Covid response

Norah Hogan September 22, 2020

Trump rallies continue, despite the rising Covid-19 death toll

Isabel Beer September 22, 2020

Latinos weigh in on President Trump’s management of the pandemic

Paola Michelle Ortiz September 21, 2020

Fast track vaccine causes fear

Kaity Assaf September 21, 2020

It’s business as usual at McSorley’s Old Ale House

Tori Luecking September 20, 2020

Trump defiance to hold indoor rallies amidst COVID-19 sparks polarized responses 

Courtney Guarino September 20, 2020

NYC Cafes and restaurants try and survive the pandemic

Isabel Beer September 19, 2020

A typical afternoon at Shade Bar NYC

Kaity Assaf September 19, 2020

West Village staple, Caffe Reggio, remains open for outdoor dining in the wake of coronavirus restrictions 

Norah Hogan September 19, 2020

Fort Greene’s Dino adds outdoor dining to keep business flowing

Courtney Guarino September 19, 2020

COVID-19 hampers Fashion Week for photographers

Daniel Karel September 18, 2020

On the heels of revelation that Trump downplayed the covid threat, voters question rallies resuming

Sughnen Yongo-Okochi September 16, 2020

Overburdened mothers in Pakistan are relieved as schools reopens

Quratulain Tejani September 13, 2020

Students from different parts of the world struggle as schools reopen during a pandemic

Chuyan Jiang September 12, 2020

Special needs students face learning obstacles during Covid-19

Courtney Guarino September 12, 2020

Back to school – COVID-19 style 

Isabel Beer September 12, 2020

The new normal for school life is abnormal in Michigan

Sughnen Yongo-Okochi September 11, 2020

California School District Parents and Teachers Clash About Return to School

Norah Hogan September 10, 2020

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