‘We Are at a Tipping Point’: An Interview with Rabbi Dr. Aaron E. Glatt

Aaron Glatt
Rabbi Dr. Aaron E. Glatt

With the day-to-day changes that government officials have made in their efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus, so too recommendations of Rabbanim and experts advising the community have kept pace with how to appropriately balance the essentials of Jewish life with a responsible approach to contain the outbreak.

One of the leading figures helping to guide communal bodies in their approach is Rabbi Aaron E. Glatt, MD, who serves as Associate Rabbi of Congregations Anshei Chessed and of the Young Israel of Woodmere as well as being Chairman of Medicine and Hospital Epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau, a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai and a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

As the number of reported cases of the virus quickly rose early this week, Rabbi Glatt urged Jewish communities to halt much of communal life for the time being saying that extreme precautions now could avert a more dangerous possibility in the future.

“We are at a tipping point here,” he said. “At this point everything should be closed. Unfortunately, that includes shuls and schools. We need to do all we can to minimize social mixing between people. It important for everyone to realize that this is an extremely critical time when we can b’ezras Hashem prevent a much more difficult period for Klal Yisrael.”

As of early this week, several major Jewish communities with a plethora of confirmed COVID-19 cases such as the Five Towns and Teaneck had already closed many schools, and most local shuls had cancelled their minyanim.

Rabbi Glatt urged towns with fewer cases to take action and not to wait for what he and other medical experts see as COVID-10’s inevitable proliferation.

“Don’t sit back and take it easy because there aren’t so many cases where you are, there will eventually be cases everywhere and when that happens, as we have seen, it spreads very rapidly,” he said. “Don’t wait until you community get inundated, now is when you have to act.”

In areas that have cancelled regular davening in shuls, Rabbi Glatt stressed the importance of refraining from organizing makeshift minyanim in private homes.

“The goal is to keep people among their families and at distances of at least six feet from others. To have people cramping themselves into living rooms and basements to daven would be disastrous,” he said.

In communities where Rabbanim have continued to keep shuls functioning, Rabbi Glatt reinforced the importance of anyone with even minor cold symptoms davening at home and observing a self-quarantine.

While many schools and yeshivos had already closed their doors as COVID-19 diagnoses gripped staff and students, Rabbi Glatt urged other mosdos to take the opportunity to prepare themselves investigate remote learning options.

Even in communities where shuls and schools have closed, Rabbi Glatt said that healthy individuals could still go outdoors and engage in food shopping and similar basic needs, adding a warning to try to keep a distance of at least six feet from others and to avoid socializing in person.

The highly communal nature of Jewish life and interconnectedness of communities are factors that put the Orthodox community at higher risk for rapid spread as was seen in the first significant outbreak in New Rochelle. There, a single infected individual quickly spread the virus to over 100 people in his shul and quickly sent ripples through Riverdale, Teaneck, Englewood, the Upper West Side, and Yeshiva University’s Washington Heights campus.

Simchos are another common occurrence in Jewish communities that carries a uniquely large potential for spread of the virus. As such, Rabbi Glatt urged baalei simchah to carefully weigh the risks when making their plans.

“The larger mixing you have and the more direct contact there is, the more potential there is for spread. There’s no mitzvah to make a big kiddush or to shake someone’s hand. We’ve been trying to limit the grandeur of simchos for a long time now; this might be a good opportunity to work on that,” he said.

Those invited, Rabbi Glatt said, should also take caution while attending, and absolutely not participate should they feel in less than perfect health.

“Everybody likes to feel as if they’re indispensable, but the baalei simchah will be a lot happier if you stay home because you didn’t feel well than to have everyone in quarantine during sheva brachos,” he said.

As jarring as the extreme steps might seem, Rabbi Glatt said the potential dangers of a large COVID-19 outbreak leave few better options.

“We have already seen its dangers especially to older people and since it is a new phenomenon, a lot of unknowns remain. What we do know is that it is highly contagious and that people can be vectors for transmission for days before they know that they themselves are sick,” he said.

While emphasizing the seriousness with which preventive measures must be taken, Rabbi Glatt said the rush to stockpile household items was an “overreaction,” but encouraged households to be prepared to be self-sufficient for a few days at a time should family members fall ill. He also warned against basing one’s actions on conspiracy theories and rumors that sow panic but do little to combat the illness.

As public officials have warned, Rabbi Glatt warned the Jewish community to be prepared for significant changes in daily life that are unlikely to be quickly reversed.

“We are facing a very serious illness and its outbreak is the biggest medical crisis in any of our lives,” he said. “We have to be prepared to change the way we do business, but the silver lining is that we hope in doing so, we can prevent more people from getting sick and end this crisis sooner rather than later.”