Tokyo-based Rabbi David Kunin can only think of one possible parallel to the current coronavirus crisis: the 2011 tsunami and earthquake that shook Japan. The natural disasters were accompanied by a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Then, “I think a lot of social distancing had to be done — not quite in this way, but something like it,” Kunin told The Times of Israel in a recent phone conversation. But the novel coronavirus crisis is “the first time, I think, anywhere in the world this kind of social distancing is necessary,” he added.
The coronavirus has presented unique challenges since it was first reported in Wuhan, China, in December of last year. It has since spread across the globe and on March 11, the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic, citing cases in 135 countries, areas or territories. By March 15, the WHO reported 153,517 confirmed cases and 5,735 deaths due to the disease caused by the virus, COVID-19.
The situation continues to affect the Far East, posing significant challenges for Kunin and other rabbis based there. China has the majority of confirmed cases (81,048) while South Korea has the fifth-most (8,162) and Japan has the 17th-most (780).
The rabbis have had to improvise and innovate in trying situations. Some have held virtual worship and celebrations, including for Purim. Others have hosted in-person gatherings with reduced attendance. Still others have left Asia, seeking safety elsewhere, keeping in touch with their congregations from afar. Collectively they try to maintain calm while monitoring the situation and praying for a good outcome.
For the Seoul-based Chabad Jewish Community of Korea, despite some congregants’ apprehensions, communal life is moving along, almost at a normal clip.
“We understand a little bit the challenge for people because of the uncertainty,” said Rabbi Osher Litzman. Yet, he added, “For us, I would say, life is perfectly normal. Everything is the same. We’re not afraid of it when we hear from people what is happening. People get uncomfortable, take things out of proportion. We know God is with us, and was with us at Purim time, when we left Egypt, and here with us now.”
For us, I would say, life is perfectly normal. Everything is the same
Chabad Korea has good communication with all the Chabad houses in Asia, Litzman said, including Japan and Singapore.
“We’re pretty much on top of the news going on. When it happens, we know what’s important to know,” he said.
But, Litzman added, at his Chabad house, “we speak about positive matters, happy things. There’s enough outside in the media. We’re here to celebrate, enjoy our spiritual life.”
Litzman wrote in an email to The Times of Israel that he plans to stay in Korea until the arrival of the messiah, and that if redemption does not come ahead of the Passover holiday next month, he plans on holding public seders as the Chabad house does every year.
He said he expects a large shipment from Israel with kosher for Passover food and wine, and is planning the public seders while running a nonprofit store to provide people with matzah and other kosher for Passover products.
If redemption does not come ahead of the Passover holiday next month, he plans on holding public seders as the Chabad house does every year
Litzman hosted Purim celebrations at the Chabad house, which has an air purifying system installed. There were several readings of the Book of Esther, with plenty of hand-washing and no hand-shaking. Litzman’s wife, Mussy Litzman, baked pizza hamantaschen.
“Although it is not easy emotionally, people kept coming, having fun, socializing, all activities they need to do,” Litzman said. “Some people preferred not to come. We do our best to accommodate their needs,” including sending mishloach manot food packages to “make sure their spirit is high.”
To the best of the rabbi’s knowledge, no one from the Jewish community is ill due to the virus.
Asked whether he has had any interaction with the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, which according to authorities has had many coronavirus cases in South Korea, Litzman said, “We have no connection with churches whatsoever.”
Life goes on in slightly more careful circumstances in Japan
Kunin, a Times of Israel blogger who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is the head of a synagogue called the Jewish Community of Japan. He is accustomed to experiencing Tokyo’s many festivals and activities. Yet now he describes the Japanese capital as eerily deserted and quiet, with the Tokyo Marathon being postponed. Even events he watches on TV have an empty feel, such as a recent sumo wrestling championship with only the competitors and officials present, and no audience. He says that although the government has come out staunchly against it, there is talk among the Japanese population in favor of halting the Tokyo Olympics scheduled for this summer.
Kunin said he began to think about the crisis and make plans in mid-February. After the Japanese government prohibited social gatherings, Kunin found alternative possibilities for his congregation of about 100 families.
He has held virtual havdalah services for the past few weeks to end the 25-hour Shabbat period, and is working on an online second-night Seder. He mailed packages of the traditional Purim cookies, hamantaschen, to congregants, and is planning to send Passover packages as well. Each week, he sends a letter with a thought on the weekly Torah portion, and also keeps in touch over the phone.
The largest challenge, he said, is helping the congregation’s many high school students whose schools have been closed already for two weeks. One student needed to take the SATs, but with no options in Japan, he had to fly to Guam to do so.
Kunin said that warm spring temperatures have not affected the coronavirus situation, adding, “I heard a Chinese expert say he did not expect it to necessarily abate in summer. Everybody’s hoping [that it will abate in summer], but I don’t think anybody knows. That it will miraculously vanish, I don’t see it happening, it’s mushy thinking.”
He said that while he knows some people outside of Japan who have contracted the coronavirus, he doesn’t personally know anyone in Japan has contracted it as of yet. Kunin also said that he followed the news of the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Japan, which had hundreds of coronavirus cases on board.
“Luckily, one Chabad rabbi brought some kosher food to a few people on the ship,” he said. For all on board, he said, “no doubt it was horrifying, a big challenge.”
Kunin has served his congregation as rabbi for seven years, relocating from his previous longtime position in Edmonton, Alberta. “I’ve always been interested in Japan, and my wife is interested in Japanese culture,” he said, adding that Tokyo is “quite a bit warmer than Edmonton, and a bigger city.”
Beyond Tokyo, Kunin also has a regional responsibility as chair of the Assembly of Rabbis and Cantors of Australia, New Zealand and Asia. In that capacity, he corresponds with congregations throughout the region, including in Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand and Korea. There are 19 total congregations within the council area, according to the World Union of Progressive Judaism website.
“Obviously, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing have been affected far earlier than we were,” Kunin said. He cites many quarantines, especially in Korea, adding that Shanghai “essentially closed up shop” and Hong Kong is locked down.
“The disruptions have been quite significant in all of the Asian Jewish communities I am connected with,” Kunin said.
In Shanghai, no coronavirus cases have been reported among the region’s three Chabad houses, only one of which is currently operating, under Rabbi Shalom Greenberg.
Greenberg’s brother, Rabbi Avraham Greenberg, is the spiritual leader of one of the other two Chabad houses in the area, in the community of Pudong. “Thank God, none of the Jews in Shanghai are infected so far,” Avraham Greenberg said, although one family is in quarantine.
Avraham Greenberg relocated from China to the US at the beginning of February. He is currently staying in the Detroit area, where his wife and in-laws are from. He’s raising funds to support Jews remaining in China.
“The first two weeks of the coronavirus, we felt it was something minor,” Greenberg said. However, after “everyone started cancelling flights to China, and America started not allowing flights from China, people realized it was something more serious.”
He said that during this time, which overlapped with the Chinese New Year, “most of the Jewish community is not there, they’re usually on vacation,” and of the remaining Jews in Pudong, they “all went away” after the crisis, except for five individuals.
Greenberg said that he communicates with his congregation frequently and speaks with his brother several times a day. Shalom Greenberg recently assisted with the collection of 10,000 facemasks for the Chinese community at the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum, a historic structure built as a synagogue for the 25,000 Jews who escaped to Shanghai during the Holocaust. Avraham Greenberg said that his brother “was able, on behalf of the Jewish nation, to say thank you, to give something back to those who had helped us in times of need.”
Acts of loving kindness are on Kunin’s mind as well. He said he read a recent New York Times column by David Brooks that stated that “in past pandemics, people acted with fear.”
“I think that’s true,” he said. “The only answer now is empathy and love, to take responsibility for all humanity. I think that’s really important in this kind of event.”
“What’s disturbed me very much in some of the media, some political spaces, there’s almost a racist, xenophobic issue, which is very horrifying to happen,” Kunin said. “With this kind of virus, people label and hate other people, especially Chinese. There’s a rise in bigotry because of the virus. There should be the opposite — an embrace of empathy.”