How the pandemic has radically reshaped all areas of communal life for UK Jews

Barry Toberman looks back on a year of change for the community


Senior couple on their seventies wearing a protective face mask standing by the window and watching a young woman delivering a basket with groceries in times of COVID-19, she is wearing mask and gloves.

December 22, 2020 11:08

It was in early March that we first reported synagogue organisations and welfare bodies revealing their contingency plans for Covid-19. In the first of a series of depressingly regular rule updates to its members, the United Synagogue urged them not to attend shul if they had recently visited an area where clusters of the virus had been reported, or been in contact with someone who had visited such an area.

Within days, an Ajex trip to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and a London Purim party for young professionals were called off — the first in a flood of cancellations or postponements that decimated the communal calendar.

The Langdon and Youth Aliyah dinners were other early event casualties, the latter charity warning that its cancellation would have a “devastating effect” on the vulnerable children in Israel it supports.

And as mounting Covid cases, and fatalities, prompted the first lockdown, kosher consumers were not only stockpiling pasta, hand sanitiser and toilet rolls, as kosher butchers reported customers “fighting over meat”.

By the middle of the month, Jewish Care had banned visitors from its homes and synagogue groups halted physical services, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis declaring: “Our Torah obligation to protect the sanctity of life transcends all other considerations.” Pleas were made to help the isolated and preserve Jewish life in the face of a scenario unprecedented in modern times.

Jewish Care, Nightingale Hammerson and The Fed in Manchester joined forces in the first of a raft of emergency appeals from cash-strapped charities.

Elsewhere, there were heartwarming stories of support initiatives for communal and wider causes (particularly NHS-related) — and individual accomplishments within the new normal.

For example, the first livestreamed United Synagogue barmitzvah attracted a worldwide audience with the Borehamwood and Elstree celebrant, Naftali Arden, telling viewers: “I can’t see you but I hope you are all wearing the smartest party clothes. No fluffy slippers and absolutely no Arsenal dressing gowns.”

In a moving piece, Rabbi Josh Levy of Alyth Reform in Golders Green reflected on leading a service in an empty shul for an online congregation.

“The response was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen,” he recalled, as the pandemic “forced us to reimagine our synagogue life”.

Love even blossomed with matchmaking service We Go Together reporting an increase in new relationships, conducted in line with pandemic regulations.

The service — open to any member of the London area Jewish community over the age of 28 — had anticipated a decrease in interest during the lockdown.

Instead, singles felt the absence of a loving partner “now more than ever”, said the founder of the service, Lady Daniela Pears. “Introductions during this period have led to people enjoying new ways of dating with more meaning and less pressure.”

Innumerable other aspects of Jewish life also had to undergo significant revision as stringent restrictions were placed on weddings, funerals and stone-settings.

There were many Covid-related burials within the community during the first wave of Covid, with care homes particularly hard hit.

At the end of April, Jewish Care told the JC that 23 of its residents had died after testing positive for the virus.

The Fed reported seven coronavirus deaths at its Heathlands Village and Jewish Choice in Wembley the same number, with other providers also recording fatalities.

In Glasgow, 14 residents died, seven of them Jewish, at Westacres, operated by Newark Care.

Meanwhile, Manchester Jewish leaders responded to a massive rise in requests for food aid, noting: “People are losing their jobs, their savings have run down, or they are self-isolating and cannot get to the shops.”

In an early example of communal generosity in difficult times, Richard Franklin, chief executive of learning disability charity Kisharon, was “astounded” as supporters raised £1.3 million in just 36 hours, eclipsing the projected revenue from its cancelled annual dinner. In Manchester, the community raised £500,000 in the same time-frame to save the Nicky Alliance Day Centre, which had been due to close because of financial losses.

Later in the year, Magen Adom UK and Chai Cancer Care also reported a seven-figure response to fundraising drives, as did Norwood for its virtual dinner. In Chai’s case, the final figure was a record-breaking £3 million plus.

While the vast majority of religious groups were complying with pandemic restrictions, there were exceptions. In Bournemouth, community members expressed concern about an influx of strictly Orthodox Jews who they claimed were holding minyans in two hotels in the seaside town, in defiance of the ban on social gatherings.

There were also reports of London Charedi wedding ceremonies “not sanctioned” by the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, which urged the strictly Orthodox community “to comply with law and social distancing rules”.

As the first lockdown was lifted in July, Orthodox synagogues returned to physical services, albeit with a litany of new regulations for worshippers.

However, the Reform movement was anticipating that its shuls would remain closed beyond the High Holy-Days with services conducted online.

“Our priority is keeping people safe,” said Reform Judaism’s then senior rabbi, Laura Janner-Klausner.

“We are conscious that when our synagogue buildings open, people may put community ahead of their own wellbeing,” she warned. There was also the danger of creating a two-tier community between those attending in person and others preferring to continue participating in online services.

In the event, a small number of Reform shuls were open for the festivals, along with some Liberal synagogues. One congregation cited “Zoom fatigue” as a factor behind the return to physical services.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme brought some brief respite to the battered kosher restaurant trade with an up to £10 per head discount on food and soft drinks from Mondays to Wednesdays during August luring back customers.

But as Philip Pell, owner of Kaifeng in Hendon, pointed out: “Three days a week for four weeks isn’t going, in any way, to replace the loss we have incurred in the last few months”.

By September, Covid rates were back on the rise, with hotspots within major Jewish areas.

In Hertfordshire, an upsurge in cases among 16- and 17-year-olds in Borehamwood, Elstree and Radlett was attributed by local councillor Tim Hutchings to “friendship groups within the wider local Jewish community.

“Contact tracing has begun and early indications are that transmission is likely to have taken place in a number of large social gatherings in private homes in the last week of August,” he said.

“In these cases, transmission did not occur in a school setting but through a number of friendship groups within the wider local Jewish community.”

The Rosh Hashanah appeal of Jewish Care highlighted the extra financial burden involved in helping service users through the pandemic. It said it had to raise an extra £5 million beyond the £16 million it normally needed to generate from the community. In November, it announced that it would be shedding nearly 100 staff as it reshaped its provision against a backdrop of service suspensions because of the pandemic and the financial cost of the crisis.

Chief executive Daniel Carmel-Brown said that as a result of the “difficult” decision, consultations were ongoing with around 120 full- and part-time employees from a workforce of nearly 1,300. No care staff from its residential homes were involved in the process. Other communal organisations also reported plans to reduce their workforce.

Synagogues were required to make last-minute adjustments to their Rosh Hashanah schedules as the government took the unprecedented step of issuing specific guidance on Jewish festivals in the wake of tougher Covid-related rules.

Shofars could be blown outdoors or indoors on synagogue premises — but if planned for public spaces such as a playground or car park, permission from the local council would be required.

Alternatively, members of a household remaining in their driveway could hear a shofar blown in the street, the United Synagogue explained.

In Elstree and Borehamwood, 1,300 registered for a series of socially distanced shofar blowings organised by Chabad.

But interviewed by the JC on the streets of Golders Green, community members felt it would be a “depressing” New Year with the “rule of six” limiting family gatherings and wariness over attending physical synagogue services.

In a report on the impact of the pandemic, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research found that British Jews in their late teens felt less comfortable about attending communal activities or events than those aged over 85.

Overall, Jews remained cautious about the idea of going to communal places. On a scale of zero meaning very comfortable, to ten, very uncomfortable, the average score was just over 5.8.

A later JPR report found that under-30s were the most vulnerable to mental health issues during the crisis.

In the wake of a doubling of referrals since March, the Jewish Bereavement Counselling Service established a support group aimed at helping those who had lost loved ones during the pandemic.

As JBCS manager Trisha Curtis explained: “In the past, people wouldn’t have been isolated. There would have been a crowd at the funeral. They would have been able to sit shivah with family and friends.”

A user of the new service described the experiences of a small funeral and Zoom shivah as “surreal. I wake up throughout the night thinking: ‘Did this really happen?’”

In a separate story, Southend and Westcliff Hebrew Congregation’s Rabbi Geoffrey Hyman described his emotions at conducting the funeral of his sister, who died after contracting Covid-19 — the second family member to succumb to the virus.

The rabbi returned to his native Belfast for the burial of Rena, 71, who was an interior designer.

“To officiate at your own sister’s levoyah is, of course, a very sad thing,” he reflected. “It’s not something you necessarily expect to do. You expect to lose a parent but you never really think about losing a sibling.”

It had not been easy getting up from mourning to lead his congregation in prayer but “sometimes that is what rabbis have to do”.

Later in the year, the United Synagogue moved to ease the burden on mourners by offering shivah services in its shuls as part of a standard synagogue service, as well as one commemorative event per day on the premises during the shivah period.

“Shock and pain” was expressed by leading Orthodox rabbis at the ban on collective worship during the November lockdown. They stressed the efforts to make services Covid-safe and their importance to mental wellbeing as they joined other religious representatives in an unsuccessful bid to get the government to backtrack.

Meanwhile, with cases in the community continuing to rise, two Orthodox Golders Green GPs warned that Jewish Covid deaths could reach spring levels.

One of the doctors,Yossi Adler, said he and colleagues were “very concerned we may be on the threshold of a situation similar to that which we were facing after Purim”.

Research among those supported by employment charity Work Avenue laid bare the devastating effect of the pandemic on both workers and bosses. More than half of those surveyed said they had experienced mental health issues and a similar number said the crisis had left them financially worse off.

Three-quarters of the 500 respondents said their employment or business situation had been adversely affected. Almost 40 per cent had either retrained or were considering it.

At least there was a ray of hope to finish the year — even as London and Hertfordshire communities were moved into the government’s new tier four — as we reported that some care home staff had received their first dose of the Covid vaccine.

Mary Mabunga, a day duty leader at Jewish Care’s Otto Schiff home in Golders Green, said that “only when I’m healthy can I confidently care for and serve others.

“The Covid-19 vaccine gives me the confidence to continue the great work of being of service to our vulnerable adults.”

December 22, 2020 11:08

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