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Coronavirus Continues to Spread on the East Coast

[additional-authors]
March 18, 2020
Photo by Victor J. Blue/Getty Images

Over the past few weeks, the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has swept through the United States at an astonishing rate. Nowhere in the country has been as profoundly affected as New York, where the Orthodox Jewish community of Westchester County finds itself at the epicenter of the pandemic.

On March 5, the total number of confirmed cases in New York was 22. As of March 16, that number was 950 with 463 of those cases being in New York City.

As a result, New York City has closed down its 1,800 public schools until at least April 20.

The largest outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States is in New Rochelle, a Westchester suburb of New York City with a prominent Jewish population.

New York’s COVID-19 crisis began on March 2, when a 50-year-old New Rochelle attorney named Lawrence Garbuz tested positive for the virus. He had attended a bat mitzvah and a funeral in February at Young Israel synagogue. Not knowing he had the virus, his exposure created a ripple effect, spreading COVID-19 to the temple’s rabbi. Garbuz also infected his wife, his 14-year-old daughter and his 20-year-old son. His son was studying at Yeshiva University. The university subsequently was shut down.

Much is still unknown about how Garbuz acquired the virus, but what is known is that his exposure potentially spread the disease to hundreds of congregants as well as Jewish day schools in Westchester County with close ties to the synagogue. This incident has made the tight-knit Orthodox community of Westchester the first in New York to address the virus head on.

New Rochelle currently is under a government-mandated containment zone, the most significant measure taken anywhere in the country. The National Guard has been deployed  until March 25 to enforce a one-mile radius in New Rochelle given that it has developed the largest cluster of confirmed cases in the U.S.

New York’s first coronavirus drive-through testing center opened March 13 in New Rochelle, accommodating up to 200 cars a day. Medical staff is stationed to perform swab tests and send the samples to a center called BioReference Laboratories, the research lab in the state involved with processing.

Outside of New Rochelle, which is being called the “ground zero” of New York’s outbreak, further infections have spread to other pockets of New York’s Jewish community. On March 11, a prominent Jewish day school, SAR Academy in Riverdale, had 29 confirmed cases.

“It is with a very heavy heart that we are suspending so many of the most crucial routines of our daily lives and life-cycle moments. We do this only because of the compelling nature of our circumstance and the decisive medical testimonies that are consistent with CDC recommendations.” — Rabbinical Council of Bergen County

The coronavirus now has spread to New Jersey as well. The number of confirmed cases statewide went from one to 29 in a week, according to New Jersey state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. The outbreak has led to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy instituting a curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. to contain the spread of the virus.

On March 12, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County — which consists of rabbis representing 28 local Orthodox synagogues and one Jewish nursing home across the densely Jewish suburban area — announced all synagogues would shut down with no prayer gatherings taking place, not even in people’s homes. Burials would be kept to small groups of family members only.

“It is with a very heavy heart that we are suspending so many of the most crucial routines of our daily lives and life-cycle moments,” the council wrote in its letter. “We do this only because of the compelling nature of our circumstance and the decisive medical testimonies that are consistent with CDC recommendations.”

For the Orthodox community, these curtailments mean forgoing their strict religious adherence to certain practices, such as forming a group minyan or holding Shabbat prayers and meals.

The closures have, however, seen Jewish communities pulling together. The Moishe House of Williamsburg in Brooklyn held a virtual Havdalah service and Temple Emanu-El in New York live streamed its Shabbat services. Hillel at Drexel University in Philadelphia shifted its typical Shabbat meal to having students host various small gatherings of their own.

One of the latest confirmed cases in the Jewish community was reported March 15 when the Shul of Bal Harbour — one of south Florida’s largest synagogues — suspended activity after its rabbi, Sholom Lipskar, tested positive.

“Preserving life is a paramount value in Judaism and that value is our guide at this point,” Rabbi Kenneth Schiowitz of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County said in a letter last week to congregants.

Rabbi Josh Davidson of Temple Emanu-El’s message to his congregants last week echoed that sentiment. “It is important to remember in moments of uncertainty when we may feel alone that we are not,” he said. “And you are not.”


Peter Fox is a contributing writer for the Forward and Tablet magazine. Follow him on Twitter @thatpeterfox. 

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