The COVID-19 pandemic brought many new inventions to the religious community:
Zoom Bar-Mitzvahs, a COVID-19 Chuppa, thousands of online Torah lessons, and even screens showing broadcast funerals. Phone lines able to broadcast all manner of content to the masses took the Haredi community by storm: Torah lessons for the masses, school materials for high-school girls, news and updates, sermons and words of encouragement from religious leaders, and so much more.
But there is no doubt that the hottest start-up is that of a balcony Minyanim. And not only the balcony – gardens, public parks, and any other open space one can think of. Guidelines and regulations that forbade minyanim in synagogues led to the outburst of minyanim outside. And in these minyanim, it is the connections between people that stand out: men and women from all shades of the religious spectrum pray together in the same makeshift minyan, as each can join – from his or hers own balcony, while drinking coffee or walking the dog.
Yet the synagogues are far more than merely places of worship and prayer. They are converging, communal focal-points and mainly, places where one can get updated on all news, on all levels – from the community and local level, to national and international news.
This is done via dozens of Shabbat leaflets freely distributed every week in the synagogues. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke, and synagogues were forced to close, the Shabbat leaflets could not be distributed. This was perhaps the financial field hurt the most among the religious sector, together with those businesses for whom a substantial percentage of their income derives from advertising in such leaflets. And indeed, after several weeks of complete paralysis, one can now see some signs of recovery, and recently people are trying to find a way to distribute the leaflets through the mechanism of open Minyanim.
Besides the changes that the synagogues are undergoing – being opened or shut down, allowing many people, or just a few, to attend, splitting or re-uniting – all in accordance with the constantly changing regulations – the main headache for observant Jews is that of the Yeshivas. Unlike ordinary educational bodies, almost all Yeshivas – whether for high-school or older students, are operated as boarding schools. Typically in each Yeshiva there may be between tens to thousands of pupils learning, eating, sleeping, and staying together 24 hours a day.
Right after the start of the Summer Zman, a week after Passover, the prayer houses were divided into capsules (as can be seen above). Also divided were the dining halls and boarding houses, with clear separation between the different compounds. For many young men, staying in their Yeshiva capsule keeps them away from centers of COVID-19 outbreak in their home neighborhoods, and so ensures their health and safety. Many Yeshivas, especially Haredi ones, took one further step and forbid their students entirely from leaving the Yeshiva compound, for fear of causing mass infection in the Yeshiva by students who leave and then return.
Preparing an institute such as a Yeshiva to conform to the Israel’s purple badge standards is a complex and
challenging task, and not all Yeshivas have the necessary infrastructure to adequately maintain the capsule structure. As a result, thousands of Yeshiva students have not returned to their studies since Passover. These young men, wandering around without a clear study framework, together with the many others “imprisoned” of their own free will in the Yeshivas, creates an especially worrying situation: how can one maintain a study routine with the necessary educational ‘tension’ on the one hand, and ease the stress on students on the other hand. As a result of this state of affairs, we are witnessing phenomena that were never seen before, such as singers invited to preform within the yeshiva itself, rich supper menus and more.
In the girls’ schools and seminaries things are simpler, because the girls stay there only during the morning hours. Nevertheless, these institutions imposed strict rules on themselves, much more than those required by the state education system. While students in the religious non-Haredi stream returned to school after Independence Day, Haredi schools for girls re-opened only one month later, after the Shavuot holiday.
So much for routine in the times of COVID-19.
With the coming of the second-wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, there again came feelings of depression, distress, helplessness and anger.
Entire Haredi neighborhoods and towns were put under lockdown, with no adequate explanation to residents as to the rhyme and reason for this, and without listening to their needs and – so it appears – without serious thought. It is, therefore, no surprise that most recently, the Haredi weekend media has been filled with headlines such as “We Can’t Breath”, “Within the Straits” (“Bein ha’Metzarim”),and ”Haredi Lives Matter”(all examples from 17 July 2020).
Most of the anger is not directed at the police, whose representatives are manning the barriers, but rather towards the Haredi members of the Knesset.
The Haredi public is very angry with their representatives in parliament, who keep quiet, do not interfere in sectoral issues, and refuse to volunteer to act as the liaison between the government and the Haredi sector. All this time, all of the Haredi media keep reminding their readers constantly that one should fully comply with instructions and regulations, if not because it is the law of the state, then because of the Torah edict “Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves”.
And so, we have reached The Three Weeks (Bein ha’Metzarim). And while the general mood is one of sadness, Halachic leaders wish to somewhat ease the mourning customs normally enacted every year at this time. Rabbis have allowed listening to uplifting music, to ease stress. Others have permitted going on trips (while following national health guidelines). Many examples of halachic leniency have been allowed this year, in many fields and for various reasons, the main factors being to allow proximity, ease loneliness and reduce mental stress.
But despite all these examples of easing restrictions, many of us will not have any difficulty this year to identify with the verse from the book of Eichah (Lamentations): “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people!”.
In the next chapter…
What will the High Holidays in Tishrei look like? How does blowing the shofar affect distribution of the Corona virus? How are synagogues preparing for the Ne’ila prayer service, and how will Simchat Torah be celebrated with no Hakafot, no Aliyah, and worst of all, no communal kiddush?