Chief rabbi of Strasbourg believes majority of city’s Jewish population infected

Harold Abraham Weill says French community of 20,000 has been hard-hit by coronavirus pandemic, even leading to some expressions of anti-Semitism

Rabbi Harold Abraham, the chief rabbi of Strasbourg, in 2017 (YouTube screenshot)
Rabbi Harold Abraham, the chief rabbi of Strasbourg, in 2017 (YouTube screenshot)

One of France’s largest Jewish communities, in the eastern city of Strasbourg, has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, the city’s chief rabbi has said, adding he believes a majority of the 20,000-strong community may have been infected.

Rabbi Harold Abraham Weill told Army Radio Friday that one Jewish person had died and at least 20 others were in serious condition, sedated and on ventilators. Eleven of the city’s 13 rabbis had fallen ill and one was in serious condition.

Weill was himself diagnosed with the virus and was sick for over two weeks but is now feeling well.

“Things are so bad in France,” he said. “It is exactly the same situation in Strasbourg. They don’t accept [people] anymore at the hospitals unless someone is in a really bad state.”

He added: “I spoke yesterday to a friend who had much stronger symptoms [than myself], who was in a really dangerous condition a week ago. His fever wouldn’t come down, he was coughing, he had shortness of breath. When he came to the hospital they told him to go back home. They said they didn’t have room and if he saw it was really becoming dangerous to come back.”

Weill said the virus’s spread through the Jewish community was “a really frightening phenomenon. How many people have been infected? I believe maybe 50 percent, maybe 60% or 70%.”

Weill said he believed the community had taken too long to acknowledge the severity of the threat, and particularly pointed a finger at the celebrations surrounding the Purim holiday on March 9.

“We issued serious guidelines ahead of Purim. We felt things were changing and beginning to be dangerous but apparently it wasn’t enough,” he said.

Strasbourg’s Great Synagogue of Peace (Google Streetview)

Weill said the community had organized online learning and leisure programs for the public which operate every day from morning till night, as well as joint online prayers. Many had volunteered to call elderly isolated people to inquire as to how they were doing.

Weill added that the prevalence of the disease in the community had led to some expressions of anti-Semitism, with Jews being accused of spreading the illness.

France’s Jewish former health minister Agnes Buzyn, who resigned in February to pursue an ultimately unsuccessful run for Paris mayor, has also been blamed in some online circles, he said.

People claimed Buzyn, herself the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, “knew in advance, that she didn’t do what was necessary, that she wanted to sell the vaccine when it arrived… These are things going around on the internet.”

This photo taken on December 23, 2011 shows Agnes Buzyn, then Head of the National Cancer Institute, attending a press conference in Paris. (AFP PHOTO / FRANCOIS GUILLOT)

Weill said while these issues were severe, the government currently needed to focus first and foremost on public health. “We will of course be in contact with the government [to address this] but right now the most important thing is to treat the sick,” he said.

France is one of the world’s worst-hit countries in the coronavirus crisis, with nearly 33,000 diagnosed cases and some 2,000 deaths — the majority in the country’s east.

On Friday the government extended its coronavirus lockdown for another two weeks as the premier warned of “difficult days” to come following a surge in cases that is beginning to put the French health system under pressure.

“We find ourselves in a crisis that will last, in a health situation that will not improve any time soon,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said. “The situation will be difficult in the days to come.”

The premier said the initial two-week home confinement of all residents except for essential employees will now last until at least April 15.

Medical staff carry a patient infected with coronavirus on a stretcher, during a stopover of the medicalized TGV train from Strasbourg, in Angers, western France, on March 26, 2020 (JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER / AFP)

Having started in the country’s east, the epidemic is now spreading in the northernmost Hautes-de-France, the wider Paris region and other areas with “an extremely high surge that puts the entire healthcare system, the entire hospital system, under enormous pressure,” Philippe said after a cabinet meeting held by videoconference.

Starting Friday, the Eiffel Tower will pay a daily homage with a special light show spelling “Merci” to France’s healthcare workers, and reminding the rest of the population to “Stay at Home.”

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