The coronavirus outbreak in New Rochelle has already closed one shul and several schools.
Rabbi Adir Posy, an associate rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation in Los Angeles who serves as director of the Orthodox Union’s synagogue and community services, told Hamodia that OU has been offering guidance to many shuls and communities, both within and without the OU network.
“Specifically in this situation, when many communities are looking to national/umbrella organizations, we’ve had lots of requests for information, because communities want to be consistent with the best practices being coordinated with leadership of institutions across the country,” said Rabbi Posy in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon.
He estimated that he’d been in contact with shul and community leaders in 15 states during the three hours preceding the interview.
OU has been working with poskim, physicians and mental-health officials to develop recommendations and guidelines, and has made them available to community leaders, but emphasizes that people adhere “without question or exemption” to guidelines of local health officials.
Based on the consultations with rabbanim and health-care professionals, OU has created a set of written guidelines. It says people who do not feel ill should continue going to shuls, mikvaos, and hold Purim events as usual. It has facilitated conversations between community leaders and Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt and Rabbi Mordechai Willig, who discuss how to navigate issues like gathering for Parshas Zachor, keeping mikvaos clean, guidance on people who feel ill staying home, and sanitizing shuls.
There are important caveats to this guidance recommending that healthy people continue attending shul and other events, said Rabbi Posy. Firstly, the individual community’s leadership must be confident that members of shul will be hygienic, the shul will be cleaned, and proper health protocols are in place, etc.; if not, community leaders must make a decision with a posek on whether to cancel. Secondly, the guidance should only be followed if it does not contravene anything by the CDC or local health department.
“We are trying to strike a very delicate balance,” said Rabbi Posy, “making sure we keep each other safe, and the paramount important importance of pikuach nefesh and lo saamod al dam reiacha; with making sure that we don’t create an unnecessary sense of panic and anxiety among our communities.”
But Rabbi Posy said that Jews must never lose sight of the true Source of safety.
“Our foremost message is tefilla,” he said. “We ask that everyone daven for those who are sick and that the virus should stop spreading. We have asked that all women should say Tehillim Perek 130 by lecht bentsching, and that shuls say Tehillim before Kabalas Shabbos. Our foremost responsibility is to open our hearts to Hakadosh Baruch Hu and seek racahami Shamayim.”
Below are some of the guidelines from the OU to shuls:
The new novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has caused illness that have been widely covered in the news media. The number of cases worldwide has grown substantially, with rising numbers of infected individuals and affected shuls and Jewish institutions.
The situation is certainly serious, and warrants an appropriate response. At the same time, it is critical to respond proportionally, in line with expert advice, and avoid creating a situation of panic.
In consultation with poskim and public health experts, we are sharing the following guidelines to assist our communities.
As maaminim bnei maaminim (believers), we must turn our attention to Hashem for assistance. We renew our call to include daily tefillot (prayers) for those affected by COVID-19, and for the further containment of this virus.
In addition, we urge all those lighting Shabbat candles before the advent of this Shabbat to again include chapter 130 of Tehillim in their candle lighting recitation, and encourage shuls to insert Tehillim on Friday night between Mincha and Kabbalat Shabbat.
We have a sacred duty to open our hearts to Hashem to ask for mercy on behalf of the people here and around the world already affected by the virus, and for the containment of the virus’ further spread.
Infection Control Precautions
At all times, notwithstanding the current concerns, the practice of proper hygienic precautions and infection control measures should be a constant priority.
It is important to remember that over 30,000,000 people in the US this season have gotten the flu, with between 16,000-30,000 deaths, including over 100 children. Flu vaccination is still indicated! By not getting or transmitting flu, you will not only save lives, but you will greatly help doctors who will have fewer patients to evaluate with unknown respiratory illnesses.
All community members should be encouraged to be especially vigilant to implement the following common-sense protocols.
- Wash your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Cover your cough or sneeze, preferably with a tissue that is immediately disposed of or, minimally, into your sleeve.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Keep a bottle of sanitizer available at each of your home’s entrances and in your car for use when you can’t immediately wash your hands.
- Custodial staff should be extremely diligent about cleaning our shuls and checking dispensers for hand soap and hand sanitizer to ensure that they are filled at all times.
Remember: these are important practices, regardless of coronavirus. If you have not already done so, get the annual flu vaccine, unless medically contraindicated.
Staying Away From Communal Gatherings if you are ill
If you have not traveled to an area where COVID-19 is prevalent or been in close contact with a traveler, and you develop respiratory symptoms, it remains likely that you have a seasonal illness like the flu rather than COVID-19.
However, it is extremely important that if anyone has symptoms of illness, including fever, coughing, stomach bug or any other sickness, that they refrain from coming to shul or other communal gatherings, either during the week or on Shabbat. This is true even for a mourner saying Kaddish. Protecting and preserving communal health supersedes other considerations.
Canceling Shul for Minyanim, Zachor and Purim
At the current time, the OU is not recommending that communities cancel minyanim, Shabbat services or Purim gatherings unless directed to do so by a community’s local health department. This recommendation is fluid and comes with the following caveats:
- Following local Health Department guidelines. If the health department in your community recommends closure, cancellation or quarantine of any community member or institution, these recommendations must be adhered to without question or exception.
- Infection control protocols must be in place and community leadership must be confident in their implementation.
- Those who are actively sick must stay away from communal gatherings.
If a community is unsure that these protocols will be implemented effectively, the OU recommends that the shul leadership consider its options in consultation with Rabbinic and local public health authorities.
Hygiene is especially important in the mikva environment and infection control protocols must be undertaken with even greater care.
The OU is not recommending mikva closures at this time.
The leadership of each mikva has a sacred responsibility to ensure that the standards of cleanliness and hygiene are upheld to the highest degree. The prohibition of access to those who are sick or in any sort of quarantine status is of even greater importance when it comes to the mikva, and mikvaot are encouraged to adopt protocols prohibiting anyone with a potential contagious medical condition from using the mikva.
It cannot be stressed enough that these are constantly evolving guidelines. We encourage all community members to monitor the CDC website at www.cdc.gov for updated information.
We hope to issue additional general guidelines as the situation evolves and we encourage each individual community to look to local Rabbinic and Public Health experts for guidance.