You’ve seen Orthodox Jews flouting social distancing on the news. You’ve watched videos of some of them burning masks on the street. Much anger and resentment has been directed towards religious Jews during the pandemic, and for people willfully ignoring social distancing guidelines (this includes people from all walks of life), some censure is certainly called for.
But has anyone heard of all of the Orthodox Jewish communities who have been fastidiously following the rules and seemingly achieving the impossible: balancing a relatively normal way of life while carefully adhering to social distancing protocols? Does anyone care that a significant number of Orthodox Jews have been social distancing, with many sacrifices, essentially proving that there is a space between a total shutdown and a total free-for-all?
While there are numerous examples of Orthodox Jewish communities all over the world striking this balance, Bergen County, New Jersey (which is comprised of the towns of Teaneck, Bergenfield, Fair Lawn, Englewood, Paramus, and New Milford) is an exemplary model to highlight. This was the first U.S. Orthodox Jewish community to shut down back in March, despite not being inundated with Covid cases at the time. In fact the rabbis of the RCBC (Rabbinic Council of Bergen County) made the bold move to close schools and synagogues even before the local government required it. Because of their leadership, numerous Orthodox Jewish communities in other counties and states followed suit with an early shut down, and many lives were saved.
The community remained completely on lockdown through June: Zoom school only, no public prayer, and no Shabbos or holidays meals between different families or friends. While Americans were feeling the sting of spending Thanksgiving without extended family, they could look to the families in Bergen County, who have gone months and months without their normal weekly Shabbos meals with their loved ones.
As New Jersey rolled out a plan for partial re-opening at the end of June, the rabbis and principals of the RCBC worked with doctors and government officials to craft a safe plan for their communities. Small, outdoor minyanim with masks and social distancing began. Day camps and sleep away camps came next and were opened with masks and pods for the former and universal testing and keeping the camp sealed for the latter.
Then school began. All parents of children in these Jewish day schools were required to sign a waiver that they would continue to abide by social distancing and make smart decisions to not put their children’ classmates, families, and teachers at risk. This meant that social distancing would extend beyond school grounds and hours.
Every day, parents and children make sure the students don’t exhibit any symptoms of Coronavirus. If they do, they are asked to stay home and if the symptoms persist, they must get tested. If someone in the family is being tested, everyone in the family is required to go into quarantine until the test comes back negative or stay in quarantine if the test comes back positive.
Plexiglass was installed in many of the schools or the schools only meet four times a week in person, so students can spread out more. Masks are worn indoors at all times except for briefly during lunch, when students socially distance. If someone in a class tests positive, the entire class, which is a discreet pod, is put into quarantine for 2 weeks.
Around the High Holidays, synagogues opened at 25% capacity for indoor minyanim with masks, social distancing, and sanitizing. As the weather gets colder and outdoor prayer is less and less comfortable, the leadership will have to figure out how to respond. There may be limited prayer groups available at that point.
As the second wave of Covid-19 is causing spikes around the world, the Bergen County community has seen some slight upticks, but the rigorous system put in place, so far, thank God, seems to be tolerating it. Classes are going into quarantine, but then children are returning to school. The community (and others like it that are following a similar model) are proving everyone, on both extremes wrong. But no one knows about it and no major media source will cover it, even as the stories of social distancing flouters went viral. So please help us spread this information because the world should know. Not only does the Orthodox Jewish community needed to be treated with more nuance, we should be seen as an example of how to do things correctly. Many other communities could learn from our exemplary behavior.