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Shuls face dilemma over Yomtov closure as Covid-19 cases soar

Spike in cases in major Jewish areas and new restrictions put community on alert

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A spike in coronavirus cases in major Jewish areas and the government’s new restrictions on social gatherings have put the community on alert.

Synagogues are reconsidering their Yomtov provision; pupils from JFS, JCoSS, Yavneh College and Hertsmere Jewish Primary are self-isolating and there are reports of young Jews with serious cases of coronavirus.

Councillor Tim Hutchings, executive member for public health and prevention in Hertfordshire, said this week that the increasing incidence of the virus among teenagers in Borehamwood, Elstree and Radlett was a result of “friendship groups within the wider local Jewish community”.

He told the JC: “If we do not get a grip on this local outbreak, then the risk is that schools may need to close.”

In a letter from Hertfordshire County Council’s director of public health, Jim McManus, parents were urged not to allow their children to host “parties or gatherings which bring together multiple households”. A number of Covid-19 cases had been linked to events “where multiple households mix”.

He continued: “We will be taking enforcement action on illegal events and this can include fixed penalties of up to £10,000 on those organising them — and penalties on everyone attending.”

At Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue, the United Synagogue’s largest congregation, chairman Simon Mitchell said the shul was in regular contact with Public Health England. For the moment, the plan was to go ahead with High Holy-Day services. But he added: “We’re watching the numbers — we’re concerned by them.”

If it became necessary to cancel services, “we won’t hesitate”. It was for such an eventuality that the synagogue was sending festival packs to some 1,400 households, enabling families to enjoy a “meaningful Yomtov experience”.

At Radlett Synagogue, Rabbi Jonathan Hughes said “nothing has been decided definitively. We’re dealing with it on a daily basis.”

He noted that “the whole point of Rosh Hashanah is we ask for another 12 months of life. So the best thing we can do in the spirit of Rosh Hashanah is to be working in a way that preserves life and protects life.

“Doing the right thing in this pandemic is true to the message of Rosh Hashanah, so certainly we shouldn’t be undermining life through gatherings.”

Shuls planning physical services for the festivals were relieved on Wednesday when a spokesperson for Boris Johnson confirmed that they could go ahead.

“Religious services and places of worship will be allowed [as now], so long as you don’t go in groups of more than six and the venue is secure with regard to spacing and capacity and so on.”

But there was concern over whether outdoor shofar blowing or communal tashlich would be permitted. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is aware of the issue but said that it could not give a definitive answer. More detailed guidelines will appear before Monday. The limit of six people for social gatherings will prevent larger groups from different households getting together for Yomtov dinners.

United Synagogue communications director Richard Verber was relieved the government had said that “services can take place in our synagogues in a Covid-secure way.

“We know there are many factors for our communities to consider as they reassess their careful and detailed plans in the coming days in light of the Prime Minister’s announcement. Protecting our members’ health remains paramount.

“In addition to security concerns, this year more than ever, we will be asking our members not to socialise before or after the services and to make their way to and from shul in a socially distanced way.”

The JC has learned of two instances of North London Jewish males in their late teens who contracted coronavirus and passed the virus onto adults in their homes. In both cases, the teenagers’ symptoms were initially relatively mild but became significantly worse over the following week.

Elsewhere, a statement on behalf of Hertsmere Jewish Primary acknowledged “a small number of positive cases” among pupils.

“These are linked to social events before the school opened. On Public Health England advice, we have isolated three classes due to contact with children that tested positive after returning to school. We have also sent parents correspondence on the situation from Public Health England.

“We are disappointed that some children are now having to learn from home as we were all excited to be back at school. However, lessons will continue online. We hope parents will be vigilant in keeping to the national guidelines for social situations and that we can all get back to school as soon as possible.”

At Clore Shalom Primary in Shenley, headteacher Karen Cohen has “asked all adults to wear face coverings when on school premises for drop-off and pick-up and has written to parents to remind them of the importance of respecting and following the rules around social distancing, both on school grounds and socially. 

“Many of our children have older siblings at other local Jewish schools, which naturally increases the risk of spread now that all schools are back. It is therefore of huge importance that schools and parents work together to do what they can to minimise that risk.”

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