JERUSALEM – As Israelis prepare to celebrate the holiest days of the Jewish calendar under a new bloc, the organization of prayer services is proving more of a mathematical puzzle than a spiritual exercise.
Rabbis must organize the faithful into groups of 20 to 50, separated by dividers, determining the number and size of the groups based on complex calculations involving local infection rates and how many entrances and square feet their synagogues have. Masks will be needed and many places will have to remain empty.
With the coronavirus raging again, Israel will become one of the few places in the world to enter a second bloc, which goes into effect on Friday, on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. The government has released a list of restrictions, along with a plethora of exemptions that many criticize as a formula for confusion and non-compliance.
“These are not the holidays we were hoping for,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, president of Ohr Torah Stone, a Jewish education group based in Israel and emissaries around the world. “The fragility of life is upon us, but I see people standing up for the occasion.”
The three-week nationwide lockdown has been scheduled to coincide with the holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and the festival of Sukkot, in hopes of causing less economic damage as business slows down during the holidays anyway. It was also intended to prevent numerous family meals that could become petri dishes for the virus.
For many Jews, the loss will be more emotional than economic, taking away from them the meetings and rituals they have always relied on to strengthen family and community bonds.
Israel successfully limited the spread of the virus in the spring, but recently its infection rate has spiraled the worst in the world. The country has had more than 300 new confirmed cases per 100,000 people in the past week, more than double the rate in Spain, the most affected European country, and four times that of the United States.
The schools closed on Thursday, just two weeks after reopening. Beginning on Friday, people will generally need to stay within 1,000 meters – about 1,100 yards – of home.
But the limit to the movement is dotted with so many exceptions – working, exercising, demonstrating, acquiring the essentials and fulfilling a variety of religious obligations – that many Israelis question the rationale and motivation behind them.
The dizzying policy changes continued on Thursday evening. With health officials warning that the relatively slow lockdown was unlikely to drastically reduce infection rates, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there may be no choice but to be stricter with regulations.
At the same time, a parliamentary commission had advocated for easing traffic restrictions, doubling the range from 500 meters to 1,000. The cabinet approved this change during the night between Thursday and Friday.
“All this zigzagging confuses people,” said Karin Azizian, 45, a housewife from Emunim, a village in central Israel. “They don’t believe in the government.”
Even before the government issued its instructions this week, the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem, where prime ministers and presidents prayed, announced it was closing its doors during the holiday season for the first time in its half-century history. .
“Our decision reflects our primary concern to protect each congregation and their families at a time of great uncertainty and changing government guidelines,” said the board of trustees. he wrote in a letter to the faithful.
“I have tears in my eyes,” Zalli Jaffe, president of the Great Synagogue, said in an interview. The synagogue operated continuously throughout all of Israel’s wars, he said, recalling how, in 1991, he ran home to open morning prayers when all clear after an Iraqi missile strike.
But the government’s policy wasn’t very reassuring, he said, asking, “Is it based on science or politics or economics?”
Many non-observant Jews attend the synagogue during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement and fasting. But exemptions from the blockade have caused resentment among secular Israelis because many of them are seen as purveyors of religious observers – the result of pressure from religious parties in the ruling coalition.
Jewish women will be able to venture beyond 1,000 meters to soak in a ritual bath, but the pools will be closed. Attentive Jews will be able to travel to purchase the supplies needed to observe Sukkot: cedar and other plants, as well as materials to build a temporary shelter. Unlike synagogues, cultural venues, museums, gyms and hotels will be closed.
“Many secular Israelis have a deep and well-argued feeling that this blockade is a ‘blockade for the laity'”, wrote Shoshana Chen, a commentator, in a column on Ynet.
Among the provisions that people have questioned is one that allows Israelis to fly to Greece and a couple of other countries, but not to Eilat, Israel’s Red Sea resort.
The head of an Israeli hotel chain said he would change the town’s name to more Greek-sounding “Eilatos” if it helped, as kitchen staff were forced to throw away the food they had already prepared for the holidays.
Public confidence in the government’s decision-making process began to erode during Passover, during the spring closure, when Mr. Netanyahu and the country’s president, Reuven Rivlin, broke the rules by hosting family members outside their core. familiar.
Mr. Rivlin apologized, once again, for this mistake in an emotional televised speech to the nation Wednesday night and said he was also atoning for the leadership’s failure to contain the pandemic.
“You trusted us and we let you down,” he said. “I want to say to the government of Israel – to its leaders, ministers and advisers: the trust of the people is beyond value. We must do everything to restore personal, medical and economic confidence to our fellow citizens “.
In an effort to allow more people to experience the holiday spirit, some Jewish organizations have been working on creative solutions.
The Tzohar Rabbinical Organization and Ohr Torah Stone have expanded the “Shofar in the Park” project started several years ago, which brings the ritual sound of the ram’s horn into the public sphere. Now they are also taking it into residential buildings where people will be blocked.
Additionally, Ohr Torah Stone has produced an abridged online version of the “machzor”, the holiday prayer book, to allow for shorter and safer services whether they take place indoors or outdoors, in smaller communal spaces up to 20 people. Thousands of copies have been downloaded for print and mass distribution.
“Jewish law prioritizes health and safety,” said Rabbi Brander. “It gives us the opportunity to maneuver in difficult times.”
Merav Atetgi, 44, a teacher from Nitzan, a small community near the southern tip of Israel’s Mediterranean coast, took two of her five children to a beach before the new restrictions took hold.
“It’s a suffocating feeling,” he said of the impending closure, “but there’s no choice.”
A young couple, Gur Lavi, 24, and Orian Mazar, 23, who live in several cities in central Israel, went to Jerusalem for a day together before spending at least the next three weeks apart, stuck in their homes. their families.
Mamilla, an open-air mall near the Old City of Jerusalem, would normally teem with foreign tourists. But the upscale souvenir shops and boutiques were nearly deserted in the days leading up to the holidays.
Yet some Israelis were still out shopping for holiday clothes. A famous chain of clothing stores still advertised “back to school” offers.
Shimi Elimelekh, a manager of one of the chain’s stores said: “unlike Passover, when everyone sat in their pajamas, this time people want to dress for their family too, to feel the holiday.”