“It is not difficult to build a sanctuary,” wrote the great 19th-century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. “It requires a moment of inspiration and a mood of generosity. But it is much more difficult to generate an enduring enthusiasm to be retained for years—or even a lifetime. Without such support, the structure itself would remain cold and lifeless. Enthusiasm for the Sanctuary must never subside. The Sanctuary and its goals must never be considered out of date.”
Hirsch, the pioneer of synthesizing modern secular culture with Orthodox Judaism, was writing about the annual half-shekel donation for the upkeep of the Jerusalem Temple, deriving from this commandment—observed only symbolically in the Temple’s absence—a vital lesson about the role of the synagogue.
In writing the story of how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed Jewish communal life in in the U.S., Jack Wertheimer acknowledges that in his research he did not attend to the dramatically different effects it had on American Ḥaredim. But an examination of the latter can be instructive in making sense of the broader situation of American Jewry. In providing such an examination, based on my own experiences, I also hope to correct misconceptions about ḥaredi life during the pandemic, and to explain why Ḥaredim insisted on keeping their houses of worship open while others were closed. But first it’s necessary to say something about the ḥaredi conception of the synagogue, which is different from that of other American Jews.
The word synagogue derives from the Greek, which is, as Wertheimer notes, a direct translation of the Hebrew beyt knesset, meaning “house of assembly.” These terms describe how most Jews see its purpose: as a place of gathering. Over the years, ancillary functions have been added to its core use as a place of prayer, which has become a major part of what synagogues do. In this way, the synagogue has become a place of gathering at least as much for its own sake as it is a place to gather for worship. The closures of synagogues, or their replacement with virtual simulacra, thus becomes a social issue as much as a religious one.
Interestingly enough, Ḥaredim do not refer to a house of worship as a synagogue or beyt knesset. Instead they call it either a beyt midrash—a house of study—or a shul—the Yiddish term that derives from the German word for school. As it is outside of ḥaredi communities, prayer is the building’s primary function, but unlike other American synagogues, its secondary use is not for social life, but for study.
That this is so is due to the distinctive ḥaredi understanding of religious obligation as well as the structure of American ḥaredi society. Ḥaredim believe that the continual lifelong pursuit of the study of Torah—considered, like prayer, a form of service to God—defines these buildings and congregations. In ḥaredi shuls, only worship and study are acceptable activities. The Shulḥan Arukh, the standard code of Jewish law, contains an entire section dedicated to regulations about what is and is not permitted in the synagogue. While it is typical for other denominations’ synagogues to use their main sanctuary for affairs of a secular nature, such as hosting political or educational figures or community events, this is much less common among Ḥaredim. And while ḥaredi shuls often provide social services, such as meals for the needy, these activities are just as often left to other communal organizations.
Indeed, the ubiquitous presence of such organizations speaks to the close-knit nature of ḥaredi society, which allows shuls to have a more focused purpose. Because ḥaredi life is so deeply communal, there are charities, neighborhood-watch groups, schools, and a great many other institutions that serve purposes that in other communities are assigned to the synagogue. Similarly, Ḥaredim don’t need the synagogue to create opportunities to socialize with other Jewish families. They tend to live in their own neighborhoods, frequently attend weddings and engagement parties, and have constant opportunities for social interaction with coreligionists. Thus the purpose of the ḥaredi shul is not to create a community; it instead emerges as a place of study and prayer within a preexisting, fully alive Jewish community. Yet even as the function of the ḥaredi shul is narrower, its presence in the life of a typical ḥaredi male, who attends shul at least three times each day, and sometimes more, is greater.
Film screenings, cooking and yoga classes, and programs “to discuss questions of racial justice, equity, and the preservation of democratic norms” might find a place in a synagogue, but they are anathema to a ḥaredi shul. If a ḥaredi Jew attends a cooking class, or a yoga class, it would likely be with other Ḥaredim, just not in a synagogue. And although members often pay dues, the ability to collect dues factors into considerations in a very minimal way. Precisely because shul attendance is seen as a fundamental need, those with means often see the support of their shuls as a necessary investment, and their voluntary contributions go far to cover expenses.
For many synagogues, the migration out of physical buildings and into a virtual world driven by the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted just how unnecessary the physical facilities are. If synagogues are merely social centers or locations for the Jewish aspects of life, why not replace them with online spaces? If anything, experiencing Jewish religious behavior in the home might lead to a firmer Jewish identity for those who would otherwise only engage in a synagogue, as some of Wertheimer’s interlocutors indeed suggested.
Hirsch himself foresaw this. “If I had the power,” he wrote, “I would provisionally close all synagogues for a hundred years. . . . What would happen? Jews and Jewesses without synagogues, desiring to remain such, would be forced to concentrate on a Jewish life and a Jewish home. The Jewish officials connected with the synagogue would have to look to the only opportunity now open to them: to teach young and old how to live a Jewish life and how to build a Jewish home.”
With that in mind, it grows easier to understand why Ḥaredim responded so differently from other Jews to the pandemic. Observers have attributed ḥaredi behavior over the past year to a lack of appreciation for science or even for the sanctity of life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, Ḥaredim made a calculation of risks and benefits based on a profound appreciation for the costs of keeping shuls closed. We attempted to reckon the tradeoffs between religious and physical health, trivializing neither, and honoring both in the best way we could.
While responses to the pandemic varied among individual ḥaredi communities, the media, naturally, chose to focus on the most egregious violations of social-distancing protocols. But overall, ḥaredi communities were able to rebound from the panicked closures of the early days of the pandemic, without falling into the trap of keeping these institutions shuttered for longer than prudence required.
Let me take as an example my own community of greater Lakewood, New Jersey, made up of between 80,000 and 100,000 souls. While it is institutionally decentralized, with no single formal leadership, it is built around its major yeshiva, Beth Medrash Govoha. The yeshiva’s students and alumni, and their families, constitute the backbone of the community, and its senior rabbis have the greatest authority.
As the threat of COVID-19 loomed, Lakewood’s rabbinic leadership met with medical experts to ascertain just what they could do to keep shuls and yeshivas open. So long as there were no confirmed cases of the virus in the community, religious and communal leaders were reticent to implement a complete shutdown proactively. Instead, on Tuesday, March 17, a full ten days before the state of New Jersey issued a stay-at-home order, leading rabbis and doctors, together with the local chapter of the volunteer EMS group Hatzolah, issued a public letter proposing that shuls remain open only if their rabbis could ensure adherence to a series of preventative measures. These were quickly put in place across town: maintaining a distance of six feet between people, sterilizing surfaces, adhering to the CDC-recommended limit of 50 people per gathering, and forbidding attendance for those who were at high risk or who were experiencing symptoms in any way.
But on March 18, when the first positive cases began coming in, the heads of Beth Medrash Govoha and halakhic decision makers sent out robocall messages directing people to stay home, even for study and prayer. Synagogues across town shut their doors completely.
For a community with worship at its center, necessity sparked invention. Thus the “porch minyan” was born—a quorum of men safely praying outdoors together, with each individual remaining on his own porch, or some other self-contained space on his own property. For the final two days of Passover, even this was disallowed, as some communal leaders feared that anti-Semites would seize on the practice as proof of ḥaredi noncompliance, and blame Ḥaredim for accelerating the disease’s spread. As soon as the holiday ended, the halakhic authorities gave the green light for the resumption of the porch minyans. Through it all, the goal of returning to shul as quickly as possible was kept in sight.
Shuls would remain shuttered until May 21, when, in consultation with medical experts and local professionals who were tracking every case of COVID-19 within Lakewood, the leading halakhic decision makers, with the backing of the senior rabbis of the yeshiva, issued strict guidelines for reopening, including social distancing, capacity limits, sanitizing, and installing plexiglass at the bimah (lectern) for the Torah reading.
Contact tracing also proved key to Lakewood’s ability to relax restrictions gradually, and reopen synagogues and schools, while most of the country was stuck in limbo. CHEMED, a local healthcare center, provided a single database into which private practitioners and urgent-care facilities could input every active COVID-19 case, along with information about its severity and the patient’s neighborhood and shul. Thus any potential outbreaks could be identified almost immediately. In addition, CHEMED assisted the local health department with its own contact-tracing efforts.
Nor was this project limited to new cases; it also included staying on the lookout for instances of reinfection as well. Reinfection did not begin to occur at all until the winter, and even then at incredibly low levels. Relying heavily on blood-serum tests, the Lakewood community initially instituted guidelines similar to those recently issued by the CDC for the vaccinated—relaxing certain restrictions only for those with immunity, but not eliminating them entirely. Thus some activities were, correctly, limited strictly to those with antibodies. This approach—along with a dedication to the principles of identify, test, trace, and isolate—helped the community go for months without any hospitalizations, even as restrictions continued to be systematically and gradually relaxed.
It bears mention that the drive to reopen and to regain some semblance of normalcy did not begin with the rabbis. Being involved in the formulation of guidelines at my own synagogue, and having assisted the rabbinic leadership communitywide, I can say that the push largely emerged from a laity that was growing increasingly skeptical of official guidelines and increasingly determined to get back into shuls. The inherent inconsistencies in the government’s rulings about what was considered “essential” did much to encourage this skepticism and impatience.
The loosening of restrictions, the decline of cases, and the declarations of public-health experts that the Black Lives Matter protests were “safe” and “necessary” created a perfect storm. Thereafter, the public-health officials lost a great deal of their authority. If you had to point to a single moment when perceptions shifted, that was it. Once CDC and NIH representatives began taking into consideration factors that weren’t strictly medical, it was easy for Ḥaredim to conclude that they, too, could make exceptions for what they considered of the utmost importance.
During the quiet summer months, a select panel of prominent congregational rabbis convened. With the complete public backing of senior halakhic authorities and yeshiva faculty, they devised a plan to keep shuls open during the inevitable second wave. Collaborating with local medical professionals—who had the best understanding of the epidemiological situation in the community—as well as national infectious-diseases experts, they were ready when community transmission resumed, and upticks in cases were detected.
Here too, the tracking portal proved to be a game-changer. When new cases began trickling in the early fall, this same panel, trusted by the public, provided updates and direction for the community at large—enabling, for instance, higher-risk individuals to take added precautions by setting up special outdoor tent minyans where every conceivable precaution was observed. They also sent private letters to the rabbis of Lakewood’s nearly 300 shuls, with a list of additional suggested precautions each could adopt during the uptick in cases to keep the shuls safe, and fielding hundreds of calls on these subjects throughout those weeks. Indeed, virtually none of the spread that occurred in Lakewood could be traced back to shuls.
And it was this panel that, when monoclonal-antibody treatments were cleared for use by the FDA, notified the community of them. This development alone saved an untold number of lives—hospitalizations dropped by over 90 percent.
Around the High Holy Days, this panel worked hand-in-hand with the New Jersey governor Phil Murphy’s office to blunt further spread of the coronavirus. The governor’s office upped testing capacity while the panel tailored guidelines for shuls. Murphy even publicly praised these efforts and began pointing to the “Lakewood model” as an example for others to emulate.
Governor Murphy was right: the Lakewood model was a success. The widespread perception, shared even by Wertheimer, that pandemic-related deaths surged in ḥaredi communities was thankfully not true in ours. The per-capita death rate in Lakewood, where shuls have been open since mid-May—has been below the baseline for the rest of the state. In short, the same sense of communal solidarity that made the Jews of Lakewood want to reopen their synagogues as quickly as possible aided them in devising and adhering to a successful strategy for mitigating the effects of the disease.
Wertheimer closes with the question of where synagogues can go from here and whether the changes made over the past year will recede along with heath restrictions. For Ḥaredim, the past year has made clear that, for us, the synagogue is as relevant today as it ever was.
The question that remains is whether our communities will regain trust in public-health experts. When the authorities asserted that synagogues could not be kept open safely in the face of COVID-19, Ḥaredim, for the most part, complied. But as these same experts dragged their feet about reopening, their credibility dwindled. The fact that we were able to return to our shuls without the loss of life they promised was inevitable, and the fact that—in retrospect—we could have safely operated the shuls continuously if we had adhered to the proper precautions, makes me worry about a different genie who seems to have escaped his bottle.
Suppose there is another pandemic, with a virus even more contagious that COVID-19, that requires a truly drastic response. Would we be able to get the needed buy-in from the ḥaredi community, which has rediscovered its deep need for its shuls when they were shuttered, while becoming far more skeptical of expert advice? That’s what keeps me up at night.
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