Amid the coronavirus, one Jewish community is finding ways to keep the faith

Becky Perlow / ABC News(BALTIMORE) — At its very core, Judaism is community and community service.

So when the deadly novel coronavirus pandemic threated the very foundation of the Baltimore Jewish community, religious leaders across the county rushed to find ways to stay connected.

“This is an incredible moment of reinvention, a challenge like we have never seen and realities like we’ve never seen before. But our religion always teaches us that no matter what the circumstances: adapt, reinvent and then do something spectacular,” said Rabbi Shmuel Silber, leader of the Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim in Pikesville, Maryland.

“So our synagogue has kind of adopted [a saying of] physically apart but spiritually connected,” he continued.

“And we’ve used that as the mantra for everything. For praying together, learning together, helping our elderly and helping those who are isolated with acts of kindness,” Silber said, adding that Baltimore hosts multiple organizations, like Ahavas Yisrael, that are dedicated to “acts of kindness.”

Sometimes, an act of kindness can be found in the simplest of places — a shopping cart, even.

Since the pandemic exploded in America, several Baltimore synagogues have banded together and launched an initiative to protect those grocery shoppers who would be at risk due to older age or pre-existing conditions.

The initiative, run by 38-year-old Dovi Ziffer, gathers a dozen volunteers at one of the kosher supermarkets in town and sends them running around the stocked aisles with a shopping list in one hand and a shopping cart in the other.

Between the bins of fresh fruit and the Passover food aisle, Dovi reiterates the rules to the volunteers and hands out the grocery lists. A few people ask questions, followed by a wave of screeching wheels as everyone heads in different directions. The volunteers weave through the aisles, pulling down cereal boxes, reaching for cartons of milk or sorting through the bushels of apples to find the best one.

“I try to pick as if I’m picking for my own family,” said volunteer Zevi Daniel as he reached for a shiny Honey Crisp apple.

“Or as if my wife is scrutinizing this,” he added with a laugh.

With his team spread out through the store, Ziffer stops to survey the land. He’s quick to note the precautions they are taking to keep both themselves and their community safe.

“We are trying to come here late in the evening when we know there’s not going to be a big crowd,” said Ziffer, speaking behind a blue hospital mask in the baking aisle at Pikesville’s Market Maven.

“We’re wearing gloves, wearing masks,” he added, continuing, “and there’s a clear vetting process that gives clear criteria for ensuring that our people are not immunocompromised, that they don’t have seasonal allergies, that they are not living in a home with somebody who’s 60 years old or that they are not traveling out of the state within the past 14 days.”

Ziffer’s team isn’t the only act of kindness in town, though.

After discovering that one of the local restaurants was struggling to make ends meet, community member Ari Gross sat down with some friends and colleagues to discuss how they as a community could help out their beloved deli, the Knish Shop. They decided to kill two birds with one stone — buy dozens of sandwiches from the deli, but then take those sandwiches and deliver them, free of charge, to the hardworking medical team at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.

“Really within minutes, though, we had such an overwhelming response of people who wanted to be a part of it,” said Gross, who believes it’s ingrained in people to give back.

The owner of the Knish Shop, Mosie Treuhaft, said Gross’ idea couldn’t have come at a better time.

“Catering was a business we always thought was recession-proof, but we were wrong. COVID changed us,” said Treuhaft, standing behind the deli counter making a tuna wrap.

“Our main business was Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and business lunches… and all that is now [coming to] a screeching halt,” he added.

According to Gross, it costs about $1,000 a day to feed the emergency room’s morning and night shifts.

“It’s just incredible. The community’s been unbelievable,” added Treuhaft, thanking Gross not just for helping his business but also for taking care of those fighting the disease on the front line.

But it’s not only the community helping the hospital — it’s also the medical staff helping the community.

Jamie Rubin, a nurse at Sinai Hospital, is part of a team that has been working with religious and community leaders to spread awareness about the novel coronavirus, and how individuals can protect themselves.

“Anything from enhanced cleaning protocols to better access to hand-hygiene supplies, facilitating curbside delivery of goods and services like grocery stores, and even advice on how to limit the number of people that are allowed entry into public spaces, like the busy grocery stores, which are typically packed in these weeks leading up to Passover,” Rubin said.

Another member of the advice team includes Dr. Jonathan Ringo, a senior vice president and COO at Sinai Hospital.

“Sinai Hospital was established over 150 years ago by members of the Jewish community in Baltimore… [so] the relationship between the Jewish community and Sinai has remained strong throughout its history,” said Ringo, who added that members of his medical staff have also given advice on social distancing, the importance of closing synagogues and even educational services.

One of those educational services includes a newly launched website, JCOVID.com. The online platform, Silber said, is helping to spread information about what the local Jewish community is doing to battle the deadly coronavirus, as well as ways people can volunteer.

“Everything we do, even our religious institutions, must adhere to the protocol that Governor Hogan is giving us,” said Silber.

“In many respects, we’ve actually gone beyond the requirements. For example, technically speaking, we could hold prayer services of less than 10 people. We as a community have chosen not to, though, because we recognize that the best chance we have to flatten the curve is to be able to stop everything,” he added.

So how does a community that can no longer pray together stay together?

“We had a choice when we closed down our synagogue,” said Silber. “We’re coming up now on three weeks – we could just shut down operations, or we could figure out how to reinvent our community.”

For 13-year-old Betzalel Tusk, it meant making some last-minute changes to his coming-of-age ceremony.

“My original Bar Mitzvah was supposed to be at the Knish Shop, which has a party room. And there were going to be like 60 people there with a DJ and a photographer, and all my friends would be there. And it was going to be a lot of fun,” said Tusk, sitting on a couch in his family’s home in Pikesville, Maryland.

Having studied and trained for over a year, Tusk was understandably disappointed when they had to change venues.

“But I got over it and I thought that maybe there would be something else happening,” he said.

That “something else?” A virtual Bar Mitzvah on Zoom, a video conferencing platform.

Tusk said it was strange, reading his portion from the Torah in a room filled only with his immediate family members.

“But there were over, like, 150 people there [too],” said Tusk.

“So many people were watching in, like people that I didn’t even know,” he added. “And it just made me feel amazing. And I’m just grateful to everyone who watched that.”

His gratefulness didn’t go unnoticed. Right as Rabbi Silber began his speech to those watching the Bar Mitzvah on Zoom, Tusk gently interrupted him.

“The Bar Mitzvah boy said [to me], ‘Rabbi Silber, can I just say one thing? I just want to thank everyone for coming to my bar mitzvah. So many of you don’t even know me. But yet you’re here to celebrate with me,’” said Silber, recalling Tusk on his Bar Mitzvah day.

“I learned more from a 13-year-old boy in that moment, than I have learned from all of my teachers throughout my life,” said Silber. “About the need for positive disposition, the need for optimism, the need for hope, and the need to make the best of your circumstances even if it’s not what you expected.”
 
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