Other than going to Israel for Sukkos a few years ago, the other times that we traveled for the yom tov (to a hotel, not to family), we somewhat bemoaned going after all was said and done.
Aside from the long, tiring flight, one thing about going to Israel for Sukkos is that the weather is always outstanding. This year the herd is not heading for Israel. Global circumstances have, for the first time in the history of the Jewish state, made that kind of travel plainly impossible.
A friend of mine who has children in Israel did go there last week, and a few days after he arrived I asked him how things were going. His response was that so long as you do not listen or pay attention to the negative media reports, things are OK. I responded to him that it looks like things are very much the same here.
Our ongoing national struggle to get a handle on the virus is only surpassed by the awful politically influenced media coverage of what we are all dealing with.
Taking all our meals outdoors in our sukkahs over the next week or so should seemingly contribute significantly to the goal of bringing down the number of positive COVID tests. So, as far as our current crisis is concerned, Sukkos arrives at a rather auspicious time.
I know more than a few people who, though married with children for many years already, had to buy a sukkah for their home for the very first time. Many had traveled to Israel each year without a second thought. But even if you manage to receive a visa and authorization to travel to Israel for yom tov, the experience will be much more limited than what we may have grown accustomed to over all these years.
Certainly, living in Israel and visiting for two weeks or so are markedly different experiences. The lockdown in Israel meant to bring down the numbers of coronavirus infections and to get a handle on the situation is going into effect as we prepare for what is referred to as “Z’man Simchaseinu,” the season of celebration and merriment. This year we are going to make our best effort.
If and when the lockdown takes effect in Israel, this is what it is going to be like. According to the regulations passed as policy by the Knesset, people are not allowed to travel or walk more than one kilometer, a bit more than a half-mile, from their homes.
That will restrict the intermingling that is partly responsible for the increasingly out-of-control spread of the virus. Most importantly from our perspective, shuls were mostly closed and minyanim were allowed outdoors, but with no more than 20 people per group.
Here in New York, hopefully we will not have to revisit those nightmare scenarios that dominated our communities from Purim through Pesach and into the beginning of the summer. Sitting outdoors at mealtime and some of us sleeping at night outside in the sukkah should contribute in a positive way to the effort to stop the spread.
So what is the plan going forward? Unfortunately, we are witnessing a lack of leadership on this matter in the overall Jewish community. At the leadership level there is disagreement and dispute. It looks like those who are capable of leadership are concerning themselves with their immediate communities, largely because there are so many conflicting interests and priorities between our varied neighborhoods. That does not serve the general best interests of all our communities.
As a people, here in New York anyway, we have excellent political connections and even influence. When it comes to dealing with local health departments, however, it seems that all bets are off, as political leaders have no choice but to shrug their shoulders and defer to those making health policy. That leaves us in a stagnant position without being able to move in any direction.
I heard a busy medical doctor say the other day at a meeting that he hardly sees any COVID-19 cases in his regular practice. Among his frum patients, however, he said, most of the cases involve COVID-19. He was asked why that is and he said that he feels the current increase in cases specifically in our communities is related to a plethora of weddings that people attended from Labor Day until just prior to Rosh Hashanah.
The current spread, he added, is not just about weddings. It’s about bar and bat mitzvahs, vorts, and even a Kiddush in shul on Shabbos. No, it’s not about Jewish rituals. It’s about any occasion or event that brings people together in close quarters, where food is involved, and especially where singing and dancing together dominates.
We do not need to do away with these kinds of occasions. But we do need to scale them down and or postpone, when possible, these types of events for a short while. It is imperative that we stop thinking that, somehow, as long as it is ritualistic or something that we have always done at this or other times of year, it is exempt from contributing to the current spread.
Up until a few days ago, the word was that in Israel the street sales of esrogim and lulavim were going to be prohibited because those sales tend to draw crowds. That was one of the restrictions that was reversed in part when the government refused to totally ban street demonstrations like the one on Saturday night. On that night, thousands of protesters gathered outside of the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem.
The Netanyahu government had sought to ban gatherings of these types last week along with keeping restrictions on davening in large groups in shul. Many members of Knesset were able to agree on the matter of limiting public prayer, but they fought to maintain the right to protest in groups of any size.
The struggle here in the U.S. earlier this year was very much the same. Some states ordered shuls and churches closed and padlocked. At the same time, however, as you will recall, it was not just a matter of demonstrations in many cities but a great amount of rioting, beatings, shootings, and, of course, looting, including in locations like midtown Manhattan.
To this day, oddly enough, our leaders like Governor Cuomo in New York and Governor Newsome in California will insist that it is necessary to keep an eye on our shuls and yeshivas while giving a pass to those disposed to demonstrate in large groups, close to one another, and many without masks.
The other day I was watching the Litton Brothers and their crew build our sukkah. Once they finished, it occurred to me that there might be a good number of people who will choose to leave their sukkah up all year round.
If I do that, I observed to Steven and Jonathan Litton, I might be able to have my own personal shul on my property through the year. The brothers listened and said that after yom tov, they will be able to replace the schach with an opaque sukkah roof that will protect us from the rain. In terms of the temperatures outdoors, well, that’s why there are portable heaters.
Of course, this was just an idea based on a contingency plan that will assuredly not be necessary. But there it is, right next to our homes — future indoor shuls potentially filled with not too many people and lots of fresh air.
We were all bemused by the idea, and our possible slogan going forward, instead of the usual refrain of “Go To Shul,” might be “Shul To Go.”
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