Synagogues, charities and other communal groups are formulating plans to deal with the potentially devastating impact of the coronavirus on UK Jewish activity.
Beyond the threat to life, particularly among the elderly, future government measures to restrict public gatherings could curtail shul services, force the postponement or cancellation of fundraising events and limit the attendance at simchahs and burials.
In updated advice issued to its communities on Wednesday, the United Synagogue urged members not to attend shul if they had recently visited an area listed in government guidance where there are clusters of the virus — or been in contact with someone who had visited such an area.
Congregants were also asked not to go to shul if they had been in contact with someone with confirmed or suspected coronavirus, or if they were themselves experiencing flu symtoms.
The US advised that if following these guidelines meant, for example, that a member was unable to say Kaddish for a loved one in a minyan, “they should consult with their rabbi to find an appropriate solution which might include someone else saying Kaddish on their behalf”.
Given that the virus can be transferred by hand, the US also suggested that members do not greet one another by shaking hands or kissing. They should also not kiss mezuzot, communal siddurim and chumashim and sifrei Torah until the threat was over.
The US is providing communities with information posters and encouraging leaders to stress the importance of good hygiene in stemming the spread of the virus.
US chief executive Steven Wilson said the guidance was “careful and measured. While we hope disruption to our communities will be kept to a minimum, we can all play our part to prevent the infection from spreading. Our synagogues are open, services are running, Purim programmes are planned and, for now, it’s business as usual.”
Similar advice issued by the Conference of European Rabbis includes the placing of hand sanitisers in areas such as entrances to synagogues, schools and communal halls.
“At these times, we cannot underestimate the importance of washing hands on all occasions prescribed by halachah.”
As an example of local level contingency planning, the Maidenhead Reform community is organising a “telephone tree” to keep tabs on members’ well-being and boost morale.
Maidenhead minister Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain explained: “We have 851 households, so we would ask 106 members to each phone eight others — ideally those closest to them geographically — so that any shopping, or collection of medicines, could be done if needed.”
If the government advised that gatherings and travel should be limited, he anticipated that bar- and batmitzvahs would go ahead (there are 162 children in its cheder). “But we would advise that just close family attend,” with others viewing the service through the shul’s video link. Its Shabbat morning services are currently streamed and it is considering extending the streaming to eruv Shabbat. A number of other Reform synagogues offer streaming of services.
With funerals, those in the vulnerable category should stay away for the sake of their health, Rabbi Romain added. “We want to be pro-active, so that we help members facing difficulties, support those who feel alone and make everyone aware that they have someone to turn if they so need. This is the time synagogues can shine as beacons of communal care.”
Jewish Care CEO Daniel Carmel-Brown said the charity had taken “a number of precautionary measures around coronavirus and issued advice on prevention to all staff, volunteers, residents and members across our services”.
Its communications would continue to be based on advice from Public Health England, “with attention given to the nature of our work with older people who may be at higher risk”.
At Manchester welfare charity The Fed, chief executive Mark Cunningham acknowledged it was “difficult to predict fully what steps we would need to take if someone we care for, or worked for us, was diagnosed as there are so many potential scenarios. We would be led by the advice given by the local public health team.
“We have, of course, considered the implications. It is clear we would have to suspend a number of services while any risk is fully assessed.”
The Nightingale House care home in Clapham has increased infection control information for staff and visitors and is holding weekly meetings to assess risk and plan for all eventualities — for example, staff sickness and isolation.
“We have policies and procedures in place for illness within the home and for staff,” said CEO Helen Simmons.
Norwood has also updated contingency plans for the possibility “that part of our workforce may become incapacitated”.
In a statement, the charity went on to stress concern about the impact of coronavirus on fundraising. “In particular, we have several international challenges planned and will continue to monitor Foreign Office advice and will adhere to all restrictions with regard to foreign travel.”
Charities with upcoming major fund-raisers are anxiously monitoring the situation. Youth Aliyah Child Rescue has its dinner scheduled for late March and is anticipating up to 300 guests.
Chief executive Daliah Medhi told the JC on Tuesday that no one had yet pulled out. But three students from its Yemin Orde village near Haifa who were going to provide the musical entertainment had been prohibited from travelling by the Israeli Education Ministry.
If things deteriorated in the UK and the charity was forced to cancel the dinner, it would not be covered by its insurance and could lose up to £90,000, “depending on how forgiving the caterer and venue would be” — and a potential £500,000 overall.
Masorti Judaism said its contingency plans included the impact on summer camps and Israel programmes. “We are in touch with participants and their parents to keep them up to date.”
Travel providers are reporting many cancellations, particularly for kosher Pesach holidays to Northern Italy.