A leading GP has criticised the United Synagogue’s decision to close all its shuls over the coronavirus outbreak, saying the “abused, the depressed, the scared, the lonely... now they have nowhere”.
In an email to the US following its decision on Tuesday night, Dr Ellie Cannon said it appreared to be a "very reactive decision".
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis had said there was a “Halachic imperative to suspend all activity at all of our synagogues until further notice” as he announced all on-site and off-site prayer services, educational, cultural and social meetings and activities for all ages would stop until further notice.
“The Dayanim and I will now be praying all weekday, Shabbat and YomTov services by ourselves at home,” he said.
In response, Dr Cannon wrote to the US: “The resilience of the community has been put at stake by this decision – the people who go to shul for comfort, for solace, to escape abusive partners, to escape their real life, to be mindful, to have something to eat or just to speak to someone once a week are all now left to fend for themselves.
"A helpline is not enough."
“There is a reason NHS GPs like myself socially prescribe our patients going to places of worship.
Dr Cannon, who is a Mail on Sunday health columnist and regularly appears on TV, called the US' decision “not a [Public Health England] decision – I speak to the Chief Medical Officer every week including today – and this was not the advice.
“To me this appears to be a very reactive decision and I am concerned about its origins rather than a system of small, spaced services in our large cavernous shuls that are often quite empty.
“The advice was to let people choose. The covid-vulnerable would be socially distancing at home, people who choose would be at home but those who need the services could come. The services would have been safe small spaced gatherings in line with social distancing guidelines.
She added that “people like myself working in mental health and the NHS will be dealing with the fallout from this decision, long after we have dealt with Corona[virus].”
The US decided to close all shuls following the advice of the Chief Rabbi that “our Torah obligation to protect the sanctity of life transcends all other considerations”.
The S&P Sephardi Community announced it is also closing its synagogues with "a heavy heart".
US Chief Executive Steven Wilson said the decision to close the shuls was “made with the heaviest of hearts" and "the most difficult moment of my professional career".
But he added the Chief Rabbi had concluded that doing so was "the only way we could protect human life" and followed consultation with the Chief Medical Officer's office.
"As the Chief Rabbi said yesterday, was not taken lightly and is the only responsible course of action," Dr Wilson said.
“We recognise the concerns shared by Dr Cannon. Indeed, we have been discussing many of them as this crisis has unfolded. But our primary concern was our duty of care to our members and staff. Nevertheless, our communities have already put in place measures to support their members.
"Arrangements have been made with local delis and caterers to help people who are stuck at home. Communities are running befriending schemes. They are cooking for isolated members for Pesach.
"They are delivering shopping, running errands and posting letters. Some Rabbis are livestreaming themselves davening to keep people connected. Others are blogging their Pesach preparations.
“We launched our Coronavirus helpline which aims to be a central port of call for people who need extra help whether practical, spiritual or emotional. We will assist people with their shopping or collecting medicines.
"It will also provide emotional support to any callers who are feeling anxious during this time and need someone to talk to.
“This Friday night, at 5pm, we’re livestreaming a Kabbalat Shabbat service. We’re doing a Facebook Live with Jonny Tugel, chazzan of Stanmore and Canons Park United Synagogue.
"He will be singing all the familiar tunes from his home and we’re inviting members of all communities to join in from theirs.
“We are living through a time of uncertainty, fear and confusion but as a community we are there for each other. Our shuls may be closed, but our communities remain open.”