A ‘miracle’? Rabbi explains why Russia’s Jews have low COVID-19 death rate
Compared to Jewish communities which became virus epicenters, Russia’s Jews seem to have gotten off relatively easy thus far — and early synagogue closures may be responsible
Many Jews in Russia have long thought that life is better in America, but nowadays, they’re not so sure. Moscow resident Baruch Gorin, spokesman for the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FJCR), now finds his elderly parents’ residency in the goldene medina a cause for concern.
Gorin’s parents are currently quarantined inside their New York apartment building as the city undergoes a continued lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Their neighbors are believed to be infected with the virus.
His father, who is 80, needs regular cancer treatments, but in New York any trip to the hospital can now be deadly. Coronavirus is spreading through the city’s Jewish community; every day, it seems, a photo of yet another victim in a black hat of the sort worn by men in his parents’ Orthodox community appears on social media.
“This is the biggest nightmare for me,” Gorin said. “It really concerns me. They can’t go to the store, to the pharmacy, to the doctor. I can see how difficult it is for them.”
In Russia, meanwhile, until now the outbreak appears to be less severe. While the number of confirmed cases is increasing, as of May 5 there have been fewer than 1,500 deaths officially attributed to the virus — a death rate of less than 1 percent.
The outbreak in Russia also appears to have mostly spared the Jewish community, despite its close links with Jewish communities in Israel, Europe and the United States, many which have been at the epicenters of the virus’ spread. So far, Russia’s community of roughly 180,000 self-identifying Jews has suffered 16 deaths due to the coronavirus.
“It’s a miracle,” Gorin said.
For purposes of comparison, as of May 5, New York City had 171,723 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and New York State had 321,192 cases and almost 19,500 deaths — significantly more than Spain, the second-most afflicted country in the world after the US, which has 250,561 cases.
It’s a miracle
What may seem miraculous to some might also be chalked up to sharp reflexes on the part of Russia’s rabbis who shut down all communal buildings and events very early in the pandemic. They recognized that early in New York’s coronavirus outbreak, an Orthodox lawyer in the city of New Rochelle, just north of the Bronx, unwittingly infected dozens of people in his community, including family, friends, and the rabbi of his synagogue.
The contagion then likely spread from New York to the Orthodox Jewish community in Montreal, which became an epicenter of the outbreak in Canada. Montreal’s community reportedly struggled to acclimate to government measures to stem the spread of the virus.
But in Russia, which is home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the world – that community did not become a virus epicenter.
Russian rabbis credit themselves for their quick decision to shut down all of the synagogues in the country even before the government ordered them to do so — a decision they say saved many lives.
When they were talking about shutting everything down in America, we were already closed down
“We were the first to close down. When they were talking about shutting everything down in America, we were already closed down,” said Rabbi Alexander Boroda, FJCR president. “We didn’t vote on it. We have our leaders, and the lead rabbis took the radical measures.”
All it took was one event: A group of yeshiva students flew to Moscow from France to celebrate the Purim holiday, which this year fell out on March 9-10. About a week after the Purim party at the Bolshaya Bronnaya synagogue in Moscow, 26 of the attendees ended up in the hospital with COVID-19, including the 73-year-old rabbi and his wife. One of those people has since died.
So, on March 15, Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar closed down the Bolshaya Bronnaya synagogue. On March 18, all Moscow synagogues and religious schools were shut down, and by March 24, all synagogues, Jewish community centers, kindergartens and schools in the country were advised to close.
By comparison, in New York City, as late as March 30, the mayor was still threatening synagogues with the possibility of government action if they did not close their doors. In Israel the chief rabbi ordered synagogues to close only on March 25. In many parts of the United States, the rabbis made their own decisions. In more than a dozen American states, including Florida, synagogues are still — or again — legally allowed to stay open.
The alternative was the horror of New York
Of course, not everyone in Russia welcomed the decision to shut down all the synagogues and Jewish schools in the country — including in areas of the country that didn’t even have any confirmed cases of COVID-19.
“People were upset that they had to stay home with their children. It seemed to them like a catastrophe worse than the coronavirus,” Gorin said. “But in the end, this decision saved lives, I’m sure of it. Now everyone can see what’s happening to their relatives in New York, in Paris, and in Jerusalem.”
He pointed out that Jewish houses of worship in Russia closed before Christian churches were ordered to shut their doors.
“The churches were open for another 10 days after the synagogues closed,” Gorin said.
To date, no other large outbreaks have occurred within the Ashkenazi Jewish community in Russia to the best of his knowledge, said Gorin.
“It could have affected the whole country because students come from different cities to study in Moscow. They were supposed to go home for Passover,” he said.
Moscow’s Jewish-Caucasian community fares worse
There has been a recent outbreak of coronavirus within the Caucasian Jewish community in Moscow, where a few thousand live, said Gorin. Approximately 10 people died and approximately 100 were infected, according to Gorin.
“It appears that they were participating in some common activities,” Gorin said.
The Caucasian Jewish website Gorskie.ru reported that it was suspected that people were infected at a fruit and vegetable market. Additionally, according to a second Caucasian Jewish website STMEGI, it appears that synagogues within the Caucasian Jewish community may also have closed later than in the Ashkenazi community.
For example, as of March 25, prayer services were still being held at a Caucasian Jewish community center in Moscow, although the number of people admitted was capped at 10. People were not required to wear masks inside the building. And on March 26, an exhibit on Caucasian Jews opened in Moscow.
It was not until the first week of April that the synagogue of Derbent, Dagestan, from where many Caucasian Jews come, shut its doors. Later in April, it was reported that at least two members of the roughly 1,300-strong Jewish community there were infected with coronavirus.
Members of the Caucasian Jewish community in Russia did not respond to requests to comment for this article.
Russia’s measures to control the spread of COVID-19 are some of the most draconian in the world. In the beginning of the outbreak, Russia forcefully hospitalized some people who returned from overseas — including those who didn’t have symptoms. One Russian woman and her son escaped from a locked infectious disease hospital through a window. Now, people in Moscow are required to have a permit to drive or use the subway. Those awaiting coronavirus test results are held criminally responsible if they leave their homes. Muscovites over the age of 65 aren’t even permitted to go to the grocery store.
But none of the Russian Jews who were interviewed for this story expressed anger over the measures.
“Our religious Jews here are more sensible than the Israeli religious Jews. In Israel, the religious communities have very high death rates,” said Irina Bass, 65, who hasn’t left her apartment in St. Petersburg, Russia, since the quarantine was announced on March 24. (Israel’s overall death toll was at some 240 at time of writing, a relatively low number, albeit with ultra-Orthodox Jews disproportionately highly affected.)
Bass, who is a shipbuilding specialist, also teaches at the St. Petersburg Institute of Jewish Studies. All the staff at the institute have been put on unpaid leave, and some classes are being offered online. The Purim party was cancelled, even after everyone had already bought and prepared food.
When asked what she thinks about the decision to close down all the synagogues in Russia, Bass said the closure is acceptable.
“Maybe it should have been even more strict,” said Bass.
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