Within a two-block radius in a certain neighborhood in Brooklyn stand three shuls. Due to COVID-19, one shul requires reservations to attend minyanim that are scattered throughout the building, along with strict social distancing and mask wearing. The second adheres to stringent social distancing and mask policies. The third has an optional partitioned space for those who want to social distance.
Eilu v’eilu. Each of these kehillos has highly regarded Rabbanim, none of whom have diminished views on the primacy of pikuach nefesh — risk to life. Yet their various standards of protocol during the ongoing pandemic reveal the differing approaches towards halachic and hashkafic procedures among various frum communities.
The sudden and tragic onslaught of COVID-19 wreaked havoc in the Jewish world in more ways than one. With its constantly changing guidelines and medical strategies, this new plague not only altered our physical existence but affected our spiritual and communal world in an onerous fashion. And different Rabbanim from diverse communities grappled with innumerable difficulties and dilemmas in different ways.
In interviews with Hamodia, four Rabbanim from various frum communities spoke of the wide-ranging challenges that COVID posed for their kehillos. With candor and sensitivity, each addressed the impact of the disease on his community, how he handled the ordeal and what lessons the experience imparted for the future.
From the Rav’s perspective, how did COVID impact your kehillah?
A successful kehillah is one whose Rav endeavors to uplift his baalei battim spiritually and involve them in limud haTorah. At the onset of COVID, we were faced with a situation where our shiurim, tefillos, mussar shmuessim, and chavrusashafts as we knew them were all shut down within the shortest span of time.
I was in panic mode about the spiritual well-being of the members of our kehillah without tefillah b’tzibbur and Torah learning. We have three kollelim, with a kollel’s essence being to learn b’rabbim and b’chaburah. All that ceased. I tried to compensate as best I could, learning with the members of the kehillah every night via Zoom and endeavoring to maintain our kehillah’s cohesiveness with a steady stream of chizuk emails throughout the day.
On a personal level, I was very involved in ensuring that everyone understood the severity of the virus. Initially, some treated the pandemic frivolously. We had to admonish them and stress the danger of such attitudes and behaviors for themselves and their families.
A year later, were your fears justified?
We’re still a very fragmented unit. We are currently functioning at about 60-70%. We are very strict regarding social distancing and masks for all those who are unvaccinated or have no antibodies. We have a major minyan taking place in a tent and a third group that is still afraid to leave their homes. The kollelim and morning chaburah have moved back into the beis medrash, with masks for those with no antibodies or who are unvaccinated.
Have other issues been affected, such as parnassah, shalom bayis and chinuch?
Parnassah is obvious; just look at the statistics. With shalom bayis I think that, if anything, the redeeming quality of having to rough it together might have only brought couples closer. Having to celebrate Pesach and Shabbosos alone, without children or grandchildren, and foregoing vacations or fraternizing with other people, creates a tremendous amount of closeness. It might also engender a certain closeness knowing this is the only person you have in the world, so you must make it work.
Regarding chinuch, in the larger Brooklyn area, it’s not a secret that everything in Boro Park and Williamsburg opened early on. I spoke with the head of a major chinuch organization in Boro Park, who explained to me: “Do you think we were kalei daas — lightheaded — about the inyan of pikuach nefesh? We understood exactly what we were dealing with and decided that the possible downside of not living life normally far outweighed opening up.”
Do you agree with this position?
Absolutely. We hold this to be pikuach nefesh. A child without Torah is the equivalent of spiritual death. We put a primacy on that while other communities did not. We cannot allow children and yungeleit to falter. The threat of a person losing his Yiddishkeit, on any level, and being unable to return to the regular maslul — routine — is pikuach nefesh at the level of gadol hamachti mei’hahoreg — causing someone to sin is worse than killing. Rabbanim made a cognizant, proactive decision to save spiritual lives by permitting us to re-enter the batei medrash and opening up the chadarim.
Government dictates were also totally ad hoc. The politics and open contradictions behind such decrees are widely acknowledged. Look at the suicide and depression rates among goyim. Doctors point to real harm lasting for decades for children sitting home. L’havdil, we now see entire states opening up, recognizing that the alternative is much worse and validating our policy of fully opening up our yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs, kollelim and batei medrash.
How has your experience as a COVID survivor who was hospitalized in serious condition and, baruch Hashem recovered, shaped your view?
My case was very dire and, b’chasdei Hashem, I survived, but it only reinforced my view. Despite permission from the authorities, when I reopened my shul I had detractors who claimed that we should adhere to higher standards of pikuach nefesh. Of course, pikuach nefesh is docheh, but pikuach nefesh spiritually must be part of the equation. Our lives are not worth living if we will die spiritually.
Rabbanim have to consider our spiritual as much as our physical survival. The spiritual well-being of our community can never be allowed to falter. Some communities did not take this stance and they are still closed. But all of our children are learning and thriving.
How do you counter any claims of chillul Hashem that might arise from this?
Regarding our children’s chinuch, our job is first and foremost to do the ratzon of Hashem. In that way, there is no chillul Hashem involved. We should thank Hashem that we have forthcoming and proactive Rabbanim and manhigim who enabled our children’s continuation of limud HaTorah.
What overarching lesson from this ordeal do you try to impart to your kehillah?
I look at the broader picture and see Klal Yisrael in an eis tzarah. Jews are being derided and harassed everywhere — on every university campus, decrees against shechitah in Europe, threats from Iran. In what seems to be déjà vu, Jews are being accused of spreading the virus all over the globe. I view this eis tzaarah as the harbinger of Moshiach.
Now is our opportunity to be involved in teshuvah, both on a personal and communal level. And we have no right to mitigate our self-importance. Every person’s teshuvah is significant, each on an individual basis. Moshiach’s coming is imminent, and we don’t want to be found spiritually lacking. Rabbanim need to bolster and encourage their kehillos to come closer to Hashem. After waiting for close to two millennia, we will then be worthy of the coming of Moshiach, bimheirah b’yameinu!
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How did the pandemic and its restrictions impact your kehillah?
This pandemic didn’t discriminate; it impacted everyone on the globe in one way or another. We had many members who contracted COVID but were very blessed to only have a handful who were hospitalized and, bli ayin hara, we didn’t lose any members to this dreaded virus. The original lockdown and continued regulations forced everyone to adapt socially, religiously and financially.
On the one hand, this year has challenged us in ways we could never have imagined, but it has also presented unpredicted opportunities. Almost always within a crisis there is an opportunity. The challenges of the lockdown and quarantine period were offset by unprecedented family time. And while the inability to learn together was difficult, we discovered how far and wide we can disseminate Torah using technology.
It was a challenge to not have minyan, Kedushah, Kaddish, krias haTorah, and Borchu. But many people benefited by davening slower and as a family, to the point that some of them struggled to come back. They didn’t want to give up the kavanah they experienced davening at home and breaking out of the routine.
Can you point to one particular area of family life that was negatively affected?
Shidduchim definitely had its challenges. It was very unnatural to date over Zoom and without activities. I know of engagements that broke up or didn’t go through because, in the planning process during COVID, differences between people became apparent that might not have otherwise. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, because maybe in those cases it might have ended in divorce later.
What are the official policies of BRS in dealing with COVID and do you think they will have lasting effects on the kehillah?
We have consistently followed the guidance of our task force and resumed hosting minyanim indoors and outdoors with distancing and masks.
Different segments of the community definitely brought different attitudes that presented a challenge. It was not at all a unified perspective on what the policies should be. But we worked hard to have a sense of community before the makkah, and that sense of community helped people understand that even when they disagreed the community comes before the individual.
Shul has become a place of pure davening and Torah with no social component. For those who appreciate the amazing decorum during davening, this has been a plus, but there is a world of people whose connection to community and even to Torah life is through kiddushes, shalosh seudos and social interactions. For them, COVID has been particularly punitive.
We have also become very splintered, with minyanim and mini-communities forming within the community. We will need to find a way to bring everyone back together and to restore the sense of togetherness and community.
Approaches toward the pandemic vary between states and between frum communities within them. Can you comment on how differing attitudes and behavior might have resulted in tension?
Certainly, there is behavior that, even now, all would agree is irresponsible and dangerous. But where exactly to draw the line between reckless and ruthless is much less clear. History will record the data, but who will measure how many friendships were strained, how many engagements were broken? What will quantify the sustained anxiety, both from fear of contracting the illness and from watching how others took it either too lightly or too strictly? My biggest concern is not the interpersonal relationships, which I believe will recover and bounce back, but the stereotypes that the Jewish community didn’t follow guidelines or care about safety, which can have long-term negative impact.
Do you think Florida’s lenient restrictions make it more difficult for Floridians to understand how severe restrictions elsewhere might lead to such a perception?
Florida has been pretty open from the beginning and the government didn’t really interfere or overly regulate. But we have to ask ourselves whether Jewish communities elsewhere have helped the stereotype of Jews causing plagues or hurt it.
I’m not blaming or looking to judge, and I hope there is no long-term impact. I think that on the one hand we fight back and are furious about the stereotype of the Jew but we also have to look in the mirror and ask how much of it we have brought upon ourselves. There are rules — whether they are government rules or shul rules or kiddush Hashem rules.
What overriding message from this ordeal do you impart to your community?
Hakadosh Baruch Hu is always asking us to prioritize our lives and to understand the difference between ruchniyus and gashmiyus and what matters the most — what’s lasting and what’s fleeting, what’s Olam Hazeh and what’s Olam Haba. COVID has challenged us to differentiate between essential and non-essential, to reevaluate our priorities and to count our blessings. And it’s really extraordinary that the world was using those terms too — essential and non-essential.
This year has also been an exercise in humility. Instead of the attitude of kochi v’otzem yadi and the notion that I can understand everything and am in charge of everything, we were all humbled to realize that we understand and command nothing. I hope that one of the lessons we learn is just how little we can predict and control, and how much we are at the mercy of Hashem.
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Rabbi Avrohom Lefkowitz
Rav and Rosh Kollel of Kollel Bnei Torah, Lakewood, NJ
How has the pandemic impacted your kehillah?
We were affected like every kehillah, but I’d like to focus on the positive effects. Our kehillah bonded together in a significant way to support each other when mispallelim were sick, providing for their needs and being mevaker choleh. And the connection between mispallel and Rav was strengthened due to the many she’eilos that came up. The olam was given the opportunity to understand the importance of consulting with a Rav and recognizing that the Rav is and will be there for them.
From my own perspective, I was able to be mechazek everyone at a time when we were all anxious. Our Daf Hayomi shiur continued over the phone, as was done in other kehillos, and it will, b’ezras Hashem, go down in history as a continuation of this sacred limud in the most challenging of times. I was able to offer shiurim that never would have been offered otherwise, like a Zoom Pesach shiur showing how to kasher each part of the kitchen [with Zoom being also accessible using a traditional phone]. And my Rebbetzin was able to help out with her many messages of chizuk and guidance.
Can you comment on the divergent approaches between Lakewood and other communities regarding handling the pandemic?
Unfortunately, there is a lot of negative talk that needs clarification. From generations dating back to the Dor Hamidbar, there have been differences of opinion. But the general rule that binds us is that we listen to chachamim. There is no singular voice; we don’t have Moshe Rabbeinu to give us guidance. Each community needs to listen to its Rav. This is critical, because if we are to decide that a particular Rav is incorrect, it results in a total disregard for authority.
Each community, like Teaneck or Brooklyn, should follow its Rabbanim and doctors, and I would hope and expect that those communities feel the same about Lakewood. If Lakewood Rabbanim and doctors feel that the social distance policies we are following are safe, then I listen to them. When we have tax issues, we go to our accountant; when a health issue arises, we go to our doctor. No one ever doubts their instructions. It should be the same with responsible Rabbanim. We should accord them the same respect and trust as we do professionals.
How do you respond to criticism of Lakewood’s seeming leniency toward social distancing?
I think there needs to be reeducation about how Lakewood dealt with this pandemic. We were hit tremendously hard because there was no warning beforehand. But the minute the state instructed us to close down, we did. Lakewood Rabbanim fully supported state and health department mandates. Yeshivos, kollelim and shuls closed down. In my kehillah, as in most Lakewood kehillos, we did not go to shul until Hatzolah and the Rabbanim advised us to. By and large, everyone listened to the Rabbanim and authorities, and we can’t be held responsible for those who did not.
Unfortunately, people talk about Lakewood and social distancing without knowing the facts. While social distancing is important, it is equally important for people to socially distance themselves from negative online chats and discussions that disparage Lakewood and are potentially more dangerous than the pandemic itself. Bashing a community of close to one hundred thousand frum Jews has absolutely no to’eles and is a form of pure lashon hara.
Furthermore, we have to distinguish between Lakewood proper and out of Lakewood. No frum Yid would walk into a secular establishment without a mask and without strictly adhering to government and health department regulations. What we do inside our mosdos and shuls is an internal matter and we can’t control the media when they unjustly disparage our community.
In what way did the pandemic affect Lakewood’s vast chinuch network?
Chinuch was definitely affected but only in the short term, because Lakewood got their schools back up earlier than others. I think this really benefited the talmidim and saved their parents’ sanity. Before opening up, Lakewood mosdos also decided against introducing Zoom and exposing children to technology. Instead, they relied on using the phone.
Although this method is not as effective as Zoom, in the long run it protects against possible exposure to the internet, which is more hazardous than COVID. Baruch Hashem, we have not had the sort of interruptions that exist in other communities, to the credit of askanim, and particularly Agudas Yisrael, who intervened on behalf of yeshivos and served as liaisons with government officials.
What overriding message from this ordeal do you impart to your community?
The mesorah of the Gedolim after the Holocaust was not to say this happened because of a particular reason. Rather, the Rambam says that when there is a tzaarah in the world, a person should daven and take it to heart. Otherwise, he is considered to be an achzari. Hashem is sending a message to everyone. That message is not necessarily punitive. It rather encourages each of us to focus inward and become the most we can be. If someone misses an opportunity to internalize that message and be mechazik himself in Torah and mitzvos, he is essentially acting cruelly toward himself and his community.
Something like this happens only once in a hundred years. The day we closed the kollel I explained that I didn’t know how long it would take, but it was going to pass. The last thing we want to do is look back at a missed opportunity to try and change something in our lives.
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What distinguishes your kehillah as an out-of-town community, particularly during COVID?
Typically, the more out-of-town you get, the more divisiveness can be a potential problem. In large and diverse communities, like Brooklyn, Lakewood or the Five Towns, every gradation of hashkafah comes with another communal institution, shul, and school. In a smaller community, perforce those communal institutions need to be more embracing of a broader swatch of the spectrum. That landscape is riper for friction. With COVID, that played out in the many strong and varying opinions about the degree of caution and care in the community.
What COVID protocols did you implement in your shul?
In our shul the basic rule is that you have to wear a mask and social distance. I don’t want a situation in which someone in his 70s can’t come to shul because someone in his 30s refuses to wear a mask. To me, that is not community. That’s not necessarily the same for a kiddush, other programs or learning before minyan.
In what ways did the pandemic impact members of your community?
I’m reluctant to sound insensitive by saying that largely we did okay, since there are people who lost loved ones and whose parnassah took a hit. But, baruch Hashem, Cherry Hill and South Jersey weren’t terribly affected the way that North Jersey and New York City were.
However, chinuch has been affected in ways that we might not even know about for years to come. Students missed out on a lot by learning over Zoom. And in a small community, homeschooled students had a major impact on the avirah of the school and in terms of the bottom line. It also really affected students who were in Eretz Yisrael — their year was truncated, not as robust or meaningful, and some didn’t end up going.
Do you see differing opinions toward social distancing nationwide being mirrored in frum communities?
Sure. Everything has become politicized, which might go hand in hand with a certain mistrust of statistics, advice and publications. I see some who act with almost reckless abandon of basic precautions.
On the other extreme, people are shaming and intolerant and dabble in a little self-righteousness. There is a certain sense of martyrdom and a willingness to entirely sacrifice social lives that is almost a rallying cry of the left. They don’t necessarily balance the serious considerations of financial and emotional well-being with physical well-being.
What do you think is the fallout from any friction caused by differing approaches in frum communities?
I think the fallout is the friction itself. We believe that achdus is worthwhile for its own sake, even apart from pragmatic reasons of having a shared destiny, projects and resources that require us to get along with one another. It’s unfortunate and problematic that there hasn’t really been a whole lot of conversation or an attempt to understand the other side, at least in some places.
The nature of this is a little different because there is the perception that the way you live your life directly affects me, so this has risen to a new pitch. If we both attend the same shuls and schools, then your actions make my life more dangerous or at least more uncomfortable.
I think the antidote to this lack of achdus is to have emunah and bitachon that each of us can only do our best within our own daled amos and believe that Hakadosh Baruch Hu takes care of the rest. That doesn’t mean a complete abandonment of trying to sway other people toward an opinion that we hold very strongly, but more of a measure of dan l’chaf zechus would have been in order on both sides of the fence. The lack of it can dig even deeper trenches between different factions within Klal Yisrael. We can’t afford that.
Do you think this ordeal will have lingering effects on our communities?
Yes, some good and some bad. In our very busy lives, the Zoom phenomenon opened up some major channels of talmud Torah and other important programs. And though by no means is Zoom the same, there’s no such thing as a snow day anymore for mesivta high school boys, who should never go a day without learning Torah.
The flip side is that some people who go to shul more out of habit and guilt than passion have just been given a free pass. It might be difficult to get people to come back to shul with the same amount of dedication, even if only dedication by guilt. There’s a lot that Hashem and halachah expect of us, and we need to get people to own that again after this era.
While no one knows why things happen, many offer explanations for the pandemic. Can you share one takeaway from this ordeal?
Unfortunately, I think there have been too many statements about this why happened, which I think actually start to touch on kefirah. I don’t think anybody should profess to know daas Elyon, but we absolutely should look for lessons.
When something goes wrong, we ask where Hashem was. But when things are going right, we don’t necessarily take the time to notice and appreciate. Whoever thought about what a joy it is to be able to shake someone’s hand or sit right next to a chavrusa? It would never have occurred to us to be makir tov for so many basic features of life. When life seems to be basically just normal, it’s really extraordinary and a joy. This creates a brand-new awareness and an opportunity to have greater gratitude and hakaras hatov to the people around us and to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
In a future edition, Hamodia will iy”H interview Rabbanim from additional kehillos.