Update: Since this article was published, all synagogues and most Jewish institutions have shut down or are only offering online programming. Check here for our full coronavirus coverage.
When 82-year-old Hinda Gilbert boarded the Grand Princess cruise ship in San Francisco on Feb. 21, she was looking forward to relaxing and playing some bridge. She and a friend were headed to Hawaii for a 15-day voyage.
On their way back on March 6, just one day before the cruise was to end in San Francisco, several passengers started showing flu-like symptoms. Then the news broke: 21 people on board the ship had tested positive for coronavirus.
“We were quarantined to our room,” Gilbert, a member of Congregation Emanu-El, told J. “We could not leave for five days. It was like a movie.”
The ship’s passengers were told to disembark at the Port of Oakland, and Gilbert and her friend were brought to Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield for a mandatory 14-day quarantine. They will remain there until March 24.
“I’m just taking this one minute at a time,” said Gilbert, who is worried she’ll become ill with the virus through close contact she had with other cruise passengers. “You can’t complain you’re in this situation. You have to grin and bear it.”
The coronavirus has caused dramatic disruption everywhere. Schools are canceled, synagogues are moving worship online, senior homes are on lockdown and Jewish agencies are closed or offering very limited social services, including JCCs in San Francisco, Palo Alto, the East Bay and others.
But the full impact of the virus, which was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, goes beyond closures. It is causing emotional, spiritual and financial ripples across the entire Jewish community. And nobody knows how long it will last, or what the long-term effects might be.
“It’s been very stressful having to make decisions about community events that impact a lot of people,” said Rabbi Chai Levy of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. “I’ve been feeling the weight of that.”
In response to recommendations from the city of Berkeley’s health officer urging residents to avoid large gatherings, Levy and other congregational leaders decided to cancel the meal portion of their Purim celebration. They also had to make the “difficult decision” to cancel Shabbat services for the next two weeks.
“The Jewish value of saving a life overrides everything,” Levy said. “We need to err on the side of caution.”
Levy is also aware of the potential economic hit on the congregation. “There is a financial question,” she said. “Will people continue their membership if we have to suspend services for an extended period of time?”
Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco already has lost “thousands and thousands” of dollars from the cancellation of its March 9 Purim carnival alone, Rabbi Jonathan Singer said.
“When you lose that kind of money, it does have an impact,” he said. The temple has canceled its next two weekends of Shabbat services, as well as a number of upcoming events. Bar and bat mitzvahs, however, will still be held, although guests are limited to family and close friends.
“We’re treating them as private events,” Singer said. “Families have invested so much. We want them to have this experience with their child.”
Synagogues aren’t the only institutions worried about the financial fallout. The Contemporary Jewish Museum announced that it would close indefinitely as of March 12. The museum was already hurting from the coronavirus before the closure, according to chief operating officer Kerry King, when corporate partners who usually rent out space all started canceling.
“It does feel very surreal,” King said. “Like many other things right now.”
The Reboot Ideas Festival, a national gathering scheduled for late March in San Francisco, has been canceled, a move that CEO David Katznelson estimates will cost the organization in the six figures.
“That’s hard for a midlevel nonprofit,” said the Bay Area resident. “The hope is that we will be able to recover that in various ways.”
Hebrew Free Loan in San Francisco just announced that it would be offering interest-free loans to those who are hurting financially in the crisis, whether from missing work, suffering small-business losses or dealing with health care costs. “We want to help people who are struggling from financial effects related to this,” HFL executive director Cindy Rogoway said. Visit hflasf.org to apply.
Apart from financial worries, many Jewish leaders are concerned that closures deny people a familiar place to find solace during a high-stress time, when community is even more important.
“The synagogue is a place for times of difficulty,” said Ellen Bob, executive director of Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto. “But the way to keep people safe is to keep people separate. So, there’s a lot of tension. It’s not good for people’s spiritual or mental health.”
Bob’s congregation will be streaming services for the next two Friday nights.
She also discussed the personal toll the virus has taken on her as a communal leader.
“It feels a lot like the days after the shooting in Pittsburgh,” she said about the Tree of Life massacre in October 2018. “It’s a very heavy responsibility.”
Some Jewish institutions are set on remaining open no matter what.
“We run a crisis organization,” said Naomi Tucker, executive director of Shalom Bayit, a Berkeley-based center for domestic violence prevention. “We can’t have our staff work remotely. We already work with a vulnerable and at-risk population.”
While the organization is restricting nonessential people from its office, it will still be escorting its members to court hearings and holding small support groups.
“It’s not an option to leave clients more isolated,” Tucker said. “We’re providing a vital service that must go on.”
The most vulnerable group during the coronavirus outbreak is seniors. According to the CDC, those 60 and older are at higher risk from becoming very sick from the virus.
That has a big impact on Jewish organizations that work with older adults. JCC East Bay’s CEO Melissa Chapman said she’s particularly worried about the elderly who are in need of community, but who won’t be able to attend events at the center, such as senior classes, clubs and lunches. The center is closed until at least April 5.
“The potential for extreme isolation is very real,” Chapman said. “If you pull those opportunities, what does that look like for them? That’s going to have a trickle-down effect on their health. That’s what every piece of research will tell you.”
Senior homes are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of coronavirus, which has attacked such facilities to deadly effect. Nineteen deaths were linked to one long-term care facility in Kirkland, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. Jewish senior homes in the Bay Area have put a number of measures in place to ensure the safety of residents and staff and are keeping up with a rapidly evolving situation.
Jay Zimmer, CEO of the Reutlinger Community in Danville, said staff members are “nervous.” At a recent meeting, Zimmer said, “I could look around the room and see that people who are already concerned — not only about themselves, but the residents and their family and friends — took on another look of concern.”
Reutlinger has restricted all visitors from the skilled-nursing and assisted-living areas of the facility. Exceptions are made for those who are visiting residents in hospice or end-of-life care.
“It would be an understatement to say it’s been extremely stressful,” Zimmer said. Separating the elderly from their family members could do harm to those whose physical health benefits from social contact.
“We’ve been using video conferencing to engage families, at least to allow people to see each other. Over an extended amount of time, that would not hold up.”
On March 12, the city of San Francisco ordered all long-term care facilities to restrict visitors through April 21. The regulation includes the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living, which already had been limiting visitors. In addition, CJL spokesperson Marcus Young said, all staff and essential personnel are being screened before entering.
The Moldaw Residences in Palo Alto also is taking additional precautions. Communal dining has been suspended, and all prepared meals are either delivered or available for residents to pick up.
“It’s frightening and very upsetting,” said 91-year-old Gisa Oloff.
Before entering Moldaw, visitors are asked if they have traveled to certain high-risk countries, if they’ve had any respiratory symptoms, or if they’ve knowingly come into contact with someone with the coronavirus. If any of the answers are “yes,” entry is denied, spokesperson Kitty Haag said.
While the coronavirus presents much less risk to young people, they too are affected by the disruptions. Schools have been closed in many cities, including San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, for the next several weeks. Trips to Israel and Europe have been postponed.
On March 12, Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco announced that classes would shift online until April 3. Teachers will give assignments and do routine check-ins through video conferences with students, but won’t hold full classes. This will allow educators to tend to their own children at home, head of school Rabbi Howard Ruben said.
“It’s been a cascading range of planning,” said Ruben, whose team has been anticipating a shift to online teaching for weeks. He said it is too soon to know what will happen if the school needs to remain closed after April 3.
The same day as JCHS’ announcement, Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto said it would cancel school for two weeks and move classes online.
“We did not make this decision lightly and are joining an increasing number of independent schools on the Peninsula and throughout the Bay Area that are also closing their campuses,” a statement from the school said.
Meanwhile, Jewish leaders will continue offering emotional and spiritual support to those who are struggling. Rabbi Menachem Landa of Chabad of Novato said he’s been counseling “a bunch” of congregants.
As of March 12, his center was continuing Shabbat services. But if they end up being canceled, Landa said, live-streaming will not be an option because of the halachic prohibition on the use of electricity on Shabbat.
“At times like this, a leader is here to create comfort,” said Landa, whose first name means “comfort” in Hebrew. “That’s my job.”