Fighting a Virus: Local Community Mobilizes Over Coronavirus

March 11, 2020

On March 8, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health issued a statement saying that a Los Angeles resident who attended the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., from March 1-3, tested positive for the novel coronavirus — COVID-19. Last week, two other attendees — from New York — were diagnosed with the virus.

However, unlike the New York attendees who were reported to have had the virus before attending the conference, according to an email sent to parents at Gindi Maimonides Academy in West Los Angeles, Los Angeles County officials told the school the L.A. attendee contracted the virus at AIPAC.

The email stated in part: “We are aware that a parent of a neighboring Jewish Day School has tested positive for the coronavirus. Baruch Hashem, he is already recovering and his family has not been sick at all — nor shown any symptoms of carrying the virus.”

The man has been identified as a parent at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, according to Shalhevet High School’s student newspaper, The Boiling Point. The Boiling Point reported it received a copy of an email sent to Harkham Hillel families. In an abundance of caution, Harkham Hillel stated in that email that the school on West Olympic Boulevard would be closed at least through March 12, because a parent of one of its students had contracted the virus “from outside L.A. County,” The Boiling Point said. Harkham Hillel stated that online classes, however, would be taking place. The email went on to say, “In speaking directly with the L.A. County Health Department, we were advised not to be alarmed.”

However, on March 9, the L.A. County Health Department announced that it was investigating two additional cases, bringing the county’s total number of cases to 16. One case traveled through Japan. One case has an unidentified source of exposure, and as a result has been determined as the county’s first possible case of community transmission.

Before these announcements, the Journal already had spoken with several area synagogues, schools and Jewish organizations. Jonathan Aaron, senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, told the Journal he is an affectionate guy. “My instinct is to give hugs,” he said. But in light of the Los Angeles County Department of Health’s declaration of a local public health emergency, Aaron has a new routine. Instead of greeting congregants with hugs, he’s keeping his hands in his pockets. And he’s offering elbow bumps.

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice also is going the elbow-bump route. “It’s extremely hard,” Botnick said. “People expect to be able to shake the rabbi’s hand.” But it’s for the wellness of everybody, he said. “If I’m shaking 50 hands and the first person is sick … it’s not only for my own well-being.”

Leadership at Kehillat Israel in the Pacific Palisades sent out an email that read, in part, “Please minimize or avoid physical contact with others while here at KI. During services, meetings, programs or events — when we would ordinarily ask you to shake hands or hug the person next to you, we will instruct attendees in a non-contact greeting.” Director of Operations Adam Simon elaborated, suggesting people “turn to their neighbor and wish them ‘Shabbat shalom.’ ”

In one of its communications, Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village “encourage[d] congregants to offer fist bumps and elbow touches, rather than handshakes and kisses when we greet one another.”

IKAR in the Mid-Wilshire neighborhood sent an email last week that included this guidance: “Instead of physical greetings like hugs, kisses and handshakes, we suggest two hands to the heart and a slight bow.” IKAR CEO Melissa Balaban said a community member proposed the gesture. IKAR’s email even included a four-second video of a man and woman demonstrating the greeting, albeit with one hand over the heart instead of two. IKAR also made the decision to livestream its Shabbat and Purim services so that those who were sick or immune-compromised could stay home and watch. It also now is serving pre-sliced challah instead of the usual whole challah. And it just instituted a new practice at Shabbat lunch. In the past, lunch had consisted of a self-service buffet. But now, staff and volunteers, wearing gloves, will serve the food.

Out too at many congregations, including Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, is kissing mezuzot, tallitot or Torahs, at least for the time being. “While we are taking appropriate measures to ensure we keep our community safe and healthy, we are staying calm and collected as we approach our response to the coronavirus,” Executive Director Matthew Weintraub said. “We are stressing that our community members take shared responsibility in these efforts.”

Temple Beth Am on La Cienega Boulevard has “assembled a task force of medical professionals from our own community for guidance,” Executive Director Sheryl Goldman said. It is hiring waiters to help at Shabbat Kiddush so guests aren’t grabbing bagels themselves from a big basket or using the same knife to spread cream cheese. It also packaged sandwiches and sweets individually at its Purim celebration, rather than the traditional platters.

Perhaps the most widely adopted change is an increase in hand sanitizer dispensers. “We are placing hand sanitizing pumps, wall mounted, throughout the building,” Botnick said. (These are touch-free foam dispensers.) However, he added, “[Hand sanitizer is] incredibly difficult to locate. So many places are sold out. So we are doing it relatively piecemeal. … We have invested several hundred dollars in making sure we have proper hand sanitizers all around the building.”

New signage also is appearing. Temple Beth Am created a general, six-point informational sign that covers things like staying home if you are sick or don’t feel well, and keeping hands away from eyes, nose and mouth, which it has posted in multiple locations. Five of the six points include hand-washing reminders. They also added signs with detailed hand-washing instructions in temple restrooms.

As of press time, few organizations had canceled events. IKAR did cancel its TRIBE Feast last Friday night, a monthly event for young adults, but encouraged people to attend the Kabbalat Shabbat scheduled for the same evening “and then meet for smaller, more intimate Shabbat dinners afterward.” According to Balaban, IKAR also decided to scale down Purim celebrations and “combine activities.”

Adat Ari El in Valley Village “postponed” its Purim World celebration. The message on its website from Executive Director Eric Nicastro read: “After assessing CDC (Centers for Disease Control) protocols and recommendations regarding COVID-19, we believe that hosting a large-scale community wide event will be difficult to manage at this time. … The health and safety of our community is always our number one priority and that will be our only consideration as we navigate this difficult situation.”

Erica Rothblum, head of school at Pressman Academy at Temple Beth Am, sent a lengthy email to families outlining the precautionary measures the school had already taken. The email also addressed what would happen in the event of a school closure, even though that wasn’t anticipated.

“In the middle school, we will utilize online virtual classrooms to maintain our regular class schedule,” Rothblum wrote. “We will also use online virtual classrooms for some elementary school learning. We are currently working with our faculty to successfully implement virtual classroom technology. The rollout of a program like this would normally be much slower and deliberate, but we are doing as much as possible to prepare quickly.”

“Obviously, none of us have dealt with anything like this before,” Temple Emanuel’s Aaron said. “There have been times, many moments and incidences over the last two decades, that have caused stress, tension, anxiety, uncertainty and fear. As a synagogue community, we want to provide a place where people can recharge and reflect and find stillness amidst all the noise and confusion in the public sphere.”

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who has been in touch with many synagogue and school leaders in recent days, echoed that sentiment.

“The gathering of Jews in synagogues, the gathering of students at schools, the gathering of people at events, is the bedrock of our Jewish community, our gathering community,” he said. “How we react to [the coronavirus] and how this develops is going to be felt for years to come. My job right now is all about how do we react and how do we do things in a way that is communally sensible while also looking at the broader implications.”

“How we react to [the coronavirus] and how this develops is going to be felt for years to come. My job right now is all about how do we react and how do we do things in a way that is communally sensible while also looking at the broader implications.” — Jay Sanderson

American Jewish Committee (AJC) Los Angeles Director Richard Hirschhaut told the Journal, “On an agency-wide basis, AJC has been proactive and vigilant in assessing any potential risks to our staff, lay leadership, community allies and partners. Every meeting, event, conference, potential travel obligation or work-related assignment is being evaluated through the lens of the latest CDC information and good common sense. The health and well-being of our AJC family is paramount and will continue to guide our decision-making, globally and locally.”

Israel educational organization StandWithUs issued a statement saying no national or international staff will be flying or using public transportation for the next month and will reassess the situation after that time, adding, “We have, sadly, made the decision to cancel our annual VIP trip to Israel, which was scheduled for May. In addition, all 26 staffers who attended the AIPAC Policy Conference will work from home for the next week to self-quarantine.”

The ripple effects continue to spread with this year’s March of the Living annual international Holocaust education program, which takes visitors to Poland on Holocaust Remembrance Day in April, announcing it was postponing this year’s trip.

March of the Living World Chair Shmuel Rosenman issued a statement on March 8 saying, “Our primary concern is the health of the many participants and the Holocaust survivors who would be joining them. Given that this is an international event involving 110 delegations from around the world, we have a responsibility to take precautionary measures in accordance with the guidelines given by authorities in various countries.”

March of the Living President Phyllis Greenberg Heideman added, “It is with a heavy heart due to the global attack of the coronavirus we will not march together on Yom HaShoah 2020. This by no means implies that we will be deterred from our mission and responsibility to remember the past, pay tribute to those who perished or honor those who survived. We will remain committed to educating the next generation and combating anti-Semitism, even as we look forward to our next march in Poland.”

And beginning March 9, Israel implemented a 14-day quarantine on anyone entering the country, and on March 10, The Times of Israel reported that the country’s health ministry is requiring that all tourists must now leave Israel “in the coming days,” to block the spread of the virus.

Concerns over the spread of the virus also have led to “the spread of misinformation and scapegoating” according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The organization issued a statement saying, “Sadly, but not surprisingly, ADL is seeing a rise in incidents of bias, bullying and xenophobia against people perceived to be of Chinese descent. In addition, extremists are using the coronavirus outbreak to advance racist, conspiratorial agendas. As usual, these include claims that Jews created the virus or are profiting from its spread.”

Additional reporting by Staff Writer Aaron Bandler.

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