Coronavirus crisisChief Rabbi Mirvis closed UK synagogues under his purview

Two ultra-Orthodox Jews die in London as coronavirus shutters most communities

While modern Orthodox and liberal communities close in fear of COVID-19, the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, an ultra-Orthodox umbrella group, continues religious services

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Stamford Hill section of London. (CC BY-dcaseyphoto/Flickr)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Stamford Hill section of London. (CC BY-dcaseyphoto/Flickr)

LONDON — Two members of London’s ultra-Orthodox community died this weekend of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to information given to The Times of Israel by the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Family members and friends were being instructed not to attend the funeral, and not to host visitors while observing the seven-day mourning period, or shiva.

A third member of the strictly Orthodox community is understood to be in the intensive care unit in a Manchester hospital, according to a community insider.

The deceased are Rina Feldman, 97, and Willi (Zev) Stern, 85. Stern, born in Hungary and a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, was once Britain’s biggest bankruptcy case, when his company, Stern Holdings, collapsed in 1978 with debts of £118 million.

The deaths come on the heels of a new, alarming video that is circulating in the United Kingdom’s ultra-Orthodox community, in which Yitzchok Kornbluh from Stamford Hill, London — home to thousands of Haredi Jews — took to the screen in lament.

In the video, he said that, despite the danger of the coronavirus, “shuls [synagogues] were full, that mikvaot [ritual baths] were full. Where is the seichel [common sense] of those who went to shul today?”

One Twitter user who calls himself @IfYouTickleUs, and is a reliable recorder of what is going on in ultra-Orthodox Stamford Hill, wrote: “Was stopped Friday by someone who genuinely didn’t know whats going on. When I said it’s… real danger, he said, But the rabbonim [rabbis] haven’t closed shuls. What does one say without a rant?”

At the time of this writing, the major ultra-Orthodox umbrella organization, the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, has declined to order its congregations to close their synagogues. Rather, it has ruled that “healthy men” may continue to attend synagogue while women and children may not.

That is despite the shockwave that went through mainstream British Jewry when Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, head of the United Synagogue, made an unprecedented announcement earlier in the week that all synagogues under his authority — mainly in London, but a number affiliated in the provinces — would close for an unspecified period. This runs to about 60 buildings, as well as numerous informal congregations.

Richard Verber, spokesman for the United Synagogue, the UK’s main modern Orthodox body, said “this was the hardest decision the US [United Synagogue] has had to take since the Second World War.” Likewise, no bar or bat mitzvahs are taking place, and weddings are only allowed in the most scaled-back of conditions, he said.

Funerals, too, are affected: Prayer halls at cemeteries are closed, and all proceeds must take place in the open air. Verber said the rule of thumb was “the largest space available with the smallest number of people.” He added: “We are expecting people not to have formal shiva houses. That’s one of the worst examples of a lot of people crowding into a small space and milling about in close proximity, exactly what the government does not want us to do.”

A number of bereaved families have announced that when it is safe to do so they will hold memorial services for those who have died.

President Reuven Rivlin )right) meets with UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis in London, November 27, 2019. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/File)

Necessity is the mother of online invention

There was one joyful exception to the “no bar mitzvah” ruling this week, when Naftali Arden, whose family are members of the Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue in north London, had his bar mitzvah streamed online, with the aid of the congregation’s rabbi, Alex Chapper.

Naftali’s mother, Tania, said the family decided on March 13 “to cancel the party and the family meals we’d planned,” even prior to the announced closure of the synagogue. A member of the Borehamwood Synagogue board approached Tania to ask if her son would like to read his Haftarah (readings from the Prophets) online. Tania and her husband Leigh thought the experience might make up for the cancellation.

“I had no concept of the tech that went into making it work and how meaningful and special it would end up being,” she said. But hundreds of people — including family members who had been due to come from abroad — viewed the video. The Ardens now hope that Naftali will be able to read from the Torah at his sister’s planned bat mitzvah, in February 2021.

Tania Arden, Leigh Arden, Naftali (13) Eliora (11) and Zevi (8), dressed for Naftali’s online bar mitzvah. (Courtesy)

Multi-denomination decision

Other synagogue groupings such as the Masorti (Conservative) Judaism movement, the Sephardi synagogues, and the Reform and Liberal movements have also closed their synagogue doors.

Though regretting the necessity to close synagogue buildings, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, senior rabbi of British Masorti Judaism, said, “We are lucky to live in a time where technology can help us. People may not be gathering physically, but they are gathering in spirit, asking what can they do to help.”

The offers of help, he said, were not just being extended by Jews to the Jewish community, but from Jews to other faiths. “I’m very hesitant to predict where this might leave us, although I do think it will help us to learn about being humble,” said Wittenberg. “It’s my intention to be in touch with other communities and other faiths, to express solidarity with them.”

Laura Janner-Klausner (Screen capture: YouTube)

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, senior rabbi of the Reform movement, said it was “all geared up” technologically. Already planned were online services and she hoped to host an online second Seder from her home, in lieu of the usual communal Seder.

And Manchester traders were among a group of kosher food importers who have made a video clip to assure those forced to stay in the UK for Passover that there were more than sufficient food supplies.

Marching to a new tune

School closures have led to new thinking, too, from an unexpected source — the Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade, or JLGB, a youth movement often joined by young people who enjoy playing marching band music. Neil Martin, its CEO, announced a new daily program for those stuck at home, with the input of adult volunteers.

He said JLGB, which is a registered charity, had received offers of help from professionals, performers, and celebrities. “Sessions will include learning magic tricks, Duke of Edinburgh’s Award training, such as first aid and map reading, alongside sessions on photo editing, app design, coding, and mindfulness,” Martin said.

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Speakers include rabbis, communal leaders, industry experts, soccer players, puppeteers, and “a couple of celebrities.” Martin said it was open to “any young person or parent who has a skill to offer, or who may be a known figure, stuck at home climbing the walls — please consider giving us half an hour to teach life skills and inspire thousands of children.”

Jewish cultural and communal life gets hi-tech spin

Adults’ cultural Jewish life has taken a hit, too, with well-used places such as the Ben Uri Art Gallery, the Jewish Museum, and the five-year-old JW3, the Jewish Community Centre for London, all closing their doors.

JW3 is a particular blow because it had become the “go-to” building for almost every communal endeavor, from political hustings for the next London mayor to every type of arts event, including hosting parts of the wildly popular UK Jewish Film Festival, the Israeli Film Festival, and some sessions for the just-concluded Jewish Book Week.

London’s JW3 recently posted online an event with Genesis Philanthropy Group head Mikhail Fridman and Natan Sharansky, moderated by James Harding, former head of BBC News. (Courtesy)

But Ray Simonson, CEO of JW3, is putting a brave face on the temporary closure. He has launched JW3TV, a way of putting taped events online, with the hope of livestreaming future talks. He said, “We’ve started posting two pre-recorded events each day — talks, discussions, concerts, interviews.”

Organized communal life has been relatively quick to respond to the coronavirus emergency, with both the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council holding meetings to decide how to coordinate volunteer initiatives. The Board has produced a “Can I Help” card offering aid to people who are self-isolating, which is coordinated by Deputies staffer Lauren Keiles.

Board president Marie van der Zyl said, “We are facing an unprecedented time of crisis… we all need to dig deep and play our part.”

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