Home Living Jewish Updated:How Jewish communities are reacting to the coronavirus scare

Updated:How Jewish communities are reacting to the coronavirus scare

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Mali Gafny in front of the Golden Chopsticks Menu (Alex Rose photo)

In the wake of the coronavirus scare spreading around the world, Jewish communities across Canada are taking precautions to protect their members from the disease and to avoid contributing to its spread. Jewish groups that have upcoming international trips scheduled are monitoring the situation to see if they’ll still be able to proceed as planned.

  • Beth Sholom Synagogue in Toronto announced it would close entirely for Purim and cancelled all morning and evening minyan services, as well as megillah reading and Purim celebrations.

In an email to members, the synagogue wrote, “It has come to our attention that there is a threat of the COVID-19 virus that has permeated our community.”

One Grade 11 student at TanenbaumCHAT who is planning on going on the March of the Living this year, the annual trip that visits Holocaust sites in Poland for a week and then Israel for a week, said the organization sent out an email on Feb. 28 about the coronavirus. The email explained that as of that day, the trip was still proceeding as planned, and the decision to travel would be made closer to the date of the trip pending decisions by travelling physicians and Canadian Health agencies. *

*On March 8, it was announced the March of the Living announced in a press release that it would be postponing its 2020 trip for an indefinite amount of time. However, the press release did make a point to say the organization was working with Poland to schedule the trip for later in the year, “with informed consideration to global health conditions and community needs.”

On March 2, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published an article saying the Auschwitz Museum would not be allowing visitors from countries affected by the coronavirus. However, on March 3, Nikki Holland, the president and CEO of Jewish Federations of Canada-United Israel Appeal (JFC-UIA), the group that oversees the March of the Living, confirmed in an email to The CJN that the trip was still scheduled to proceed as planned.

“The health and safety of our participants, volunteers, survivors and staff is a top priority. We are closely monitoring the situation related to coronavirus (COVID-19) in concert with our partners at the International March of the Living. As of today, the trip is proceeding as planned. We are examining the issue on a day-by-day basis in light of updates from public health officials. At this stage, it is too early to determine what impact – if any – the virus will have on our participation,” she wrote in the email.

Another group of TanenbaumCHAT students was scheduled to run in the Jerusalem Marathon on March 20 as part of a group with Shalva, an Israeli non-profit that supports people with disabilities and their families. However, the Jerusalem Marathon was cancelled on March 5, leading the students to cancel their trip.*

“The students are obviously disappointed, as was I after spending the past 9 months organizing the trip. However, I am confident that cancelling was the right decision. I suppose that the trip was not meant to be this year,” wrote TanenbaumCHAT teacher Jordan Hoffman, the trip’s organizer, in an email to The CJN March 5. “Tomorrow, all the students who were registered for the trip will be wearing the shirts that we had made and getting together for a “damn COVID19 pizza party” to show that we aren’t going to let this get us down.”

Large Jewish institutions, such as synagogues, local federations and funeral homes, are also making a point to protect against the coronavirus. Many synagogues are advising participants to limit handshakes and stay home from shul if they are feeling under the weather. For example, an email from Beth Tzedec to its congregants on March 2 said, “Our rabbis … are no longer hugging or shaking hands to wish congregants a ‘Shabbat Shalom.’ Instead, join them in finding new ways to wish people a ‘Good Shabbos’ with a big smile, a wave or even a thumbs up.”

Local federations are also taking it upon themselves to prepare their community members to combat the virus as effectively as possible. In the Greater Vancouver area, the Jewish Federation is working with the provincial health authority as the situation evolves, said CEO Ezra S. Shanken in a March 4 email to The CJN.

“Sharing information is important in these circumstances, and we brought a key group of community organizations together, including schools, synagogues and other high-traffic organizations, for discussions with health authority representatives last week. We are also in touch with other Jewish Federations across the continent and with Jewish Federations of North America to share information about each community’s situation and response,” the email said.

Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel in Toronto has a bright yellow sign at the top of its website imploring people not to attend services if they are feeling under the weather. Marc Benjamin said funeral homes display those kinds of messages like any other space that hosts public gatherings, and added that funeral-goers may be especially vulnerable.

“It often affects not just the elderly, but people with compromised immune systems – somebody who’s been at the hospital, or just taking care of their loved one as they pass away for the last 48 hours, for the last week, don’t get a lot of sleep, they’re not eating,” he said.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician and scientist based out of The University of Toronto, said people should feel comfortable going about their day-to-day lives, and make sure to take reasonable precautions like ensuring good hand hygiene. He said some of the precautions that people are taking, like wearing masks or avoiding Chinese businesses are misguided. Many Chinese businesses, especially restaurants, have been hit hard by the coronavirus scare, Bogoch said, enough that he has been hearing from Chinese restaurants and even gave a talk for the Toronto Chinese Business Association.

“Cases of this coronavirus are not going to be restricted to a particular ethnic group or country of origin. We see many countries around the world affected by this. And we will see many more countries around the world affected by this. So singling out an individual country and businesses owned by members of or people who might originate from that original country is completely unfounded,” he said.

One Chinese restaurant that believes it has been hit hard by the coronavirus scare is the kosher restaurant Golden Chopsticks. Owner Mali Gafny said since around mid-January, sales have dipped by 75 per cent, by far the worst business her restaurant has seen in its 23 years. She said people have been calling asking about the coronavirus and if their cooks had recently travelled to China. She said the cooks have all been living in Canada for a long time, and have even been using masks and gloves recently as an extra precaution. But business got so bad that the Kashruth Council of Canada (COR) posted on Facebook alerting people to the restaurant’s decline in business.

Richard Rabkin, managing director of COR, said it felt confident attributing the drop in business at least partially to the coronavirus scare because of the many inquiries the restaurant had been receiving about the disease, and also because Chinese businesses across the GTA were seeing their sales drop by similar numbers.

“COR supports its kosher establishments and wants them to succeed. Our proprietors are members of our community and as such we feel a responsibility to help them whenever we can, especially in a situation like this when the cause is due to misinformation,” Rabkin said in an email on March 2. “Since our post, we have been advised that some kosher consumers have rushed to support Golden Chopsticks. Our post was viewed almost 90,000 times and was picked up by other Jewish media outlets on social media. We are gratified to see the spirit of achdut (unity) in our community in that when Jews are in need of assistance, others come to their aid. COR was pleased that we could play a small part in that important endeavour.”

*This story was updated on March 5 and on March 8