Cut off from the world, Europe’s smaller Jewish communities practice creativity
search
Coronavirus crisis'Yes, this year is different from all other years'

Cut off from the world, Europe’s smaller Jewish communities practice creativity

With borders closed around the continent due to the virus outbreak and Passover around the corner, Jews who once relied on larger population centers must now fend for themselves

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

Illustrative:  A Lithuanian border guard stands next to trucks stuck in traffic jams for 60 kilometers (36 miles) on the Lithuanian border to enter Poland Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)
Illustrative: A Lithuanian border guard stands next to trucks stuck in traffic jams for 60 kilometers (36 miles) on the Lithuanian border to enter Poland Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

Members of the Jewish community in Denmark gathered together for the holiday of Purim earlier in the month in Copenhagen for a number of joyous events. Back then the coronavirus pandemic was still just a blip on the radar.

As it turned out, a participant attending the events unknowingly carried and transmitted the virus to a number of people and over 15 members of the community, including Rabbi Jair Melchior, began to feel sick.

According to Melchior, who serves as the chief rabbi for Denmark’s roughly 6,000 to 10,000 Jews, not everyone who fell ill was tested for the coronavirus (Melchior was among those who were not tested), but a number of people did test positive, including the original transmitter. Luckily, Melchior said, no elderly or other high-risk groups seem to have contracted the disease.

Denmark has taken measures to contain the virus’s spread, both within the Jewish community and across the greater population. As of March 20, the country had 1,223 known cases. Since March 13, Denmark has closed schools and public institutions, sent home public sector employees, and closed its border to non-citizens — though goods such as food and medicine were still allowed through.

With the Passover holiday rapidly approaching, the fragility of supply lines is suddenly apparent as the community is effectively cut off from the world for the time being. The situation in Denmark also highlights that of other smaller Jewish communities in Europe, who often rely on religious goods and services from outside.

“It’s all on pause,” Melchior told The Times of Israel about Danish community activity during a conversation on March 17. “Online stuff we’re starting now, but the problem was also that I was sick, so that affected the possibility of giving classes.”

Illustrative: Rabbi Jair Melchior (R) talks to a Danish soldier guarding the Jewish Synagogue in Copenhagen, Denmark, on September 29, 2017. (AFP/SCANPIX DENMARK/Nikolai Linares)

Melchior said that the usual communal seder has been canceled this year as he looks into different solutions for what can be done to ensure Jews can celebrate Passover properly. There is enough kosher-for-Passover food, he said, since most of it had arrived prior to the health crisis, and the kosher butcher shop is operating as usual.

“We’re okay on food until after Passover, and right now there’s no indication that supply will stop. So, we’re not worried about supply in the future, though that can change,” Melchior said.

There is a slight shortage of some non-essential kosher items, but “we can manage without Bisli and Bamba,” Melchior said, referring to the popular Israeli snacks. “It’s nice to have, but it’s not really a necessity — though maybe there are some in the community who will disagree with me.”

The Times of Israel checked in with leaders of other small European Jewish communities to see how they are weathering this latest health crisis. Here’s what they had to say.

Hungary

With 73 cases of coronavirus last confirmed by the Hungarian government as of March 18, the country — which is estimated to have anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 Jews, with roughly 10,000 to 15,000 regular community members — appears to host fewer known coronavirus carriers than much of Europe.

Still, under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the government has taken decisive steps to stem the spread of the virus. These include shutting the border — first just to those coming from Israel, Iran, China, South Korea and Italy, and then eventually to all non-Hungarian citizens — and ordering restaurants, cafes, clubs and cultural institutions closed.

“Hungary closed off entry to Israelis because a number of Israelis who recently traveled to Hungary turned out to be sick,” Slomo Koves, executive rabbi of the Chabad Hasidic-affiliated EMIH congregation told The Times of Israel in a March 16 email.

Illustrative: The gates for the passenger car lanes are closed at the Hungarian-Romanian border checkpoint of Artand, southeastern Hungary, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Only drivers and passengers holding Hungarian citizenship are permitted entry into Hungary. (Zsolt Czegledi/MTI via AP)

“Most of the members in our community who are studying in Israel had already come home for Purim [before the border closure],” Koves said. “On the other hand, Israeli students in Hungary are experiencing hurdles with their plans to go home for Passover even though all the universities have been closed. We are currently attempting to arrange a charter flight for them.”

Despite the regulations, Koves said, religious life goes on. While Hungary has prohibited gatherings of more than 100, the laws don’t apply to religious services.

“We at EMIH-Chabad have decided that it is specifically during such trying and challenging times when people need spiritual support and guidance,” Koves said. “We therefore feel compelled not to shut down our religious services, prayers and classes.”

“So far, thank God, nobody in the community has contracted the virus. We have closed all of our schools. A number of children who have not been feeling well were tested, and we are awaiting the results,” he said.

Koves said that in addition to sanitizing the synagogue and providing hand sanitizer to all members of the EMIH community, there has been an “operative corps” set up to prepare for the worsening situation. This includes shoring-up kosher food reserves, ensuring that older members of the community are well-supplied, and setting up an alternative medical center where doctors within the community can volunteer to help community members if there is a hold on everyday medical issues in the health care system due to the virus.

Illustrative: Slomo Koves, chief rabbi of the Chabad-affiliated Unified Israelite Congregation of Hungary (EMIH), speaks during a commemoration marking the Memorial Day of the Hungarian Holocaust victims in the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest, Hungary, on April 19, 2017. (Szilard Koszticsak/MTI via AP)

As for Passover, “We are waiting to see what will happen over the next few days,” Koves said. “As of now, we have not changed our plans. We have over 2,000 participants at our seders each year. This year, we are adjusting to have smaller seders (with fewer than 100 participants each) while also serving a larger number of locations so as many people as possible will be able to participate in a communal seder. We are also preparing approximately 1,500 special seder kits for people who prefer to do their seders at home.”

With a kosher bakery, chicken farm and dairy farm for milk production, the kosher-observant in Hungary have a degree of self-sufficiency. But, Koves said, there is still concern over a kosher food shortage “since Hungary does not have a large kosher food production branch.”

Zsuzsa Fritz, director of Budapest’s Balint House JCC which largely serves more liberal Jews, also told The Times of Israel in a March 16 email that synagogue services have been canceled, community activities postponed and the Jewish Community Center closed.

“We are planning a strong online presence,” Fritz said. “And in the progressive community some rabbis have gone online and are streaming prayers, havdalah, classes. We are definitely planning to do the seder online, which of course serves the not so observant community who will be ready to participate in online events on the holiday.”

Zsuzsa Fritz, director of the Balint JCC in Budapest. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

The Balint House will also send out online materials for families to use at home, songs, DIY seder instructions, games for children and recipes. The Federation is preparing kits to send out with matzah and other Passover necessities, Fritz said.

“Most of the Jewish institutions, organizations and synagogues were closed even before the government hardened its measures, to prevent the spread. The community acted responsibly and in time,” said Fritz.

Poland

As of March 20, there were 355 known cases of coronavirus in Poland. According to Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who serves Poland’s roughly 8,000 Jewish community members, prayers are still taking place as usual, though Torah classes are online. The only exception is a small full-time study group, which still meets in the synagogue. Schudrich spoke to The Times of Israel via email on March 15.

The Nozyk synagogue in Warsaw usually receives many tourists and visitors coming to see the historic site, said Schudrich. However, aside from prayer and the small learning group, all activities that take place in the synagogue, including visitor tours, have been suspended for two weeks.

The Lauder Morasha school is also closed, said Schudrich, as per government stipulation, and there are online classes for grades 4 and above. There is no concern about a kosher food shortage, Schudrich said, and though the communal kosher kitchen’s dining room is closed, it is still sending meals to the homes of the elderly and others who need and offering takeaway meals.

Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich in Warsaw, Poland on January 18, 2019. (Mateusz Wlodarczyk/NurPhoto via Getty Images via JTA)

Like several other communities, Schudrich said that Passover supplies were fortunately ordered well in advance of the outbreak. The community was expecting deliveries of wine, matzah, matzah meal, and other staples with no cause for concern. Meanwhile, preparations are underway for large communal seders as usual. If holding the seders proves to be impossible, Schudrich said, the community will provide kosher for Passover takeout food for the seders.

“So far, thank God, no one from any of our Jewish communities has been confirmed to have COVID-19,” Schudrich said in an email. “We are in close contact with our elderly and are preparing for an even greater emergency situation. We have created an emergency group to deal and help everyone during this situation, which is comprised of all Jewish organizations including Chabad, Reform and secular groups.”

The entrance to the Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw, Poland, the only surviving synagogue in Warsaw built before World War II. It was built between 1898-1902 and restored after World War II. It is still operational and currently houses the Warsaw Jewish Community, as well as other Jewish organizations. (Flash90)

Slovakia

The small Jewish community of 3,000 is facing challenges as the government imposes strict regulations, with 124 confirmed cases of coronavirus reported by March 20. According to Chief Rabbi Baruch Myers, who spoke to The Times of Israel on March 17, no one in the Jewish community is known to have contracted the virus.

“The health crisis has impacted religious services,” Myers said via email. “Our community is actively complying with all restrictions, including not having gatherings. This means no prayer quorums and no public seder.”

Myers said that the community hopes to make it possible for every family to have a seder and observe Passover at home. As like every year, kosher wine and matzah are being sold. To avoid unnecessary physical contact, this year there are plans to make home deliveries.

“It will be quite a challenge, and we are still working out the details for the delivery of wine, matzah and kosher meat,” Myers said. “In addition, we hope to provide educational tools, whether in print or online, in Slovak language, explaining exactly how to make a seder and observe the festival.”

As far as the continued supply of kosher food goes, “the bad news is that in general we are dependent upon Austria, and to some extent Hungary,” Myers said. “The good news is that it is probable that shipments can be made from those countries exactly as they are done for non-kosher groceries, except that we will almost certainly have to arrange the logistics ourselves.”

Norway

According to Norway Chief Rabbi Joav Melchior — brother of Danish Chief Rabbi Jair Melchior — the small community of about 1,000 active members, 700 of whom are located in Oslo, is more active than ever — if virtually — during the health crisis. There are another roughly 1,000 Jews in Norway who are not actively affiliated with the Jewish community, he said.

“We have more Torah classes than ever — every evening we have a class for people to listen to,” Melchior said on March 18. “We have committees who continue working. We are preparing for Shabbat.”

Rabbi Joav Melchior (courtesy)

“Celebrating together will be just before Shabbat and just after Shabbat,” he said, laughing. “But we have songs for kids and another program for adults which people can ‘attend’ either through Zoom or livestreaming. And so we can sing together — in that way we try to build the life that we can continue as before.”

“We have activities and groups geared towards older people so they have someone to speak with, and if there are any practical needs that we can help people who are in quarantine or other things, we try to help each other,” said Melchior. “Older people are the ones who are maybe in the highest danger, and because of that they are more afraid in this situation than others, and they’re also more alone than others.”

“Families with children have the challenge of being with children at home all day and finding what to do. That’s one kind of challenge. But the challenge of being alone at home and afraid, and far from your community because it’s dangerous to be near each other, is a new challenge that we have to address as well, so that they’ll feel a little more part of society and see that people care for them,” he said.

Melchior said that the usual communal seder of around 120 people has been canceled this year, though he noted that he usually encourages families to celebrate the seder in their own homes regardless. This year, the community has organized a group that will deliver food for the seder to people’s homes.

The community already has matzah, he said, but is facing a delicate situation with supply and demand of kosher for Passover food.

“On the one hand, people who usually travel to Israel for the holiday are going to be here and need to buy things,” he said. “But on the other hand, gatherings will be smaller and people may be inclined to buy less. If we have leftover product at the end of the holiday, that’s the least of our problems. But if there’s not enough, that can be an issue.”

“This year is going to be different from all other years. We’ll already be asking why is this night different from other nights, and yes, this year will be different,” Melchior said.

But, Melchior said, “As they say [in Ethics of Our Fathers 2:16], ‘It’s not on you to finish the task, but neither can you quit it.’ This is always the case, but we feel it more this year — that we do our best, but in the end we’re in the hands of someone higher.”

read more:
comments