Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Members of the international Christian humanitarian organization Samaritan’s Purse put the finishing touches on a field hospital in New York’s Central Park on March 30, 2020. The group has deployed to help combat the coronavirus outbreak in the city.Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
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In New York, the Distance Between Life and Death Grows Shorter

The coronavirus preys on the city’s tightknit Jewish communities, which also offer desperately needed support in a time of loss, grief, and ever-growing need

Armin Rosen
April 08, 2020
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Members of the international Christian humanitarian organization Samaritan's Purse put the finishing touches on a field hospital in New York's Central Park on March 30, 2020. The group has deployed to help combat the coronavirus outbreak in the city.Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

For many New Yorkers, the coronavirus can feel like the most monotonous major crisis in human history, even with hundreds of people dying each day. The city is effectively split into two separate zones: There is the world of the hospitals, places of unimaginable stress and suffering; and the world of waiting, a place as large as the living room or fire escape or rooftop that you aren’t really allowed to leave. There are abundant hints that the unseen country of the dead and dying exists and that its horrors are imminent: the endless sirens, the illnesses of acquaintances, the daily rosters of the dead, the evacuation of any sense of joy or spontaneity or life from every public space. For the healthy, or for people lucky enough not to have lost someone yet, it is fleeting private fears that most effectively bridge the hospital and the living room—the numb anxiety that some silent, cloaked invader will soon collapse the two realms into one another. But fear is hard to sustain for weeks or even days at a time, and for the most part reality remains bifurcated, with the dying and the waiting kept cordoned off from each other.

The city now has one point of particularly surreal direct contact between these two halves, located in a rolling field abutting Fifth Avenue, in the high 90s. After emerging from the long straightaway east of the reservoir, runners on Central Park’s main drive are now greeted with rows of long white tents—a temporary hospital exclusively for coronavirus patients with 68 beds, including 10 ICU beds. It is a project of Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian development and disaster relief organization based in North Carolina. The field itself is near Mount Sinai hospital, and sits across from a postcard-ready block of tony Manhattan real estate and less than a mile north of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At either end are knobs of roughly equal height, making it a perfect capture-the-flag arena for local school children. Brock Kreitzburg, director of the group’s international disaster response unit, explained that Samaritan’s Purse had built and operated a similar field hospital for civilians injured in the midst of the bloody 2017 battle to retake Mosul, then the ISIS caliphate’s crown jewel. The facility operated near Iraq’s second-largest city for about a year. Thus, the Upper East Side joins various war zones and post-typhoon Mozambique on the list of recent settings for a Samaritan’s Purse tent hospital.

On a Wednesday afternoon, the hospital could feel like a harbinger of a fast-encroaching, citywide madness. Cyclists on the park drive zipped by a scene out of a parallel reality that was in fact now everyone’s reality. Actually, the hospital is proof that the madness might abate someday soon. There were already 20 patients inside the facility, although they were discreetly hidden from any kind of public view. The group’s trucks and around 90 staff had arrived on Sunday; the hospital began receiving patients just three days later. The tent hospital had been set up in conjunction with Mount Sinai; government permits had been a breeze. Samaritan’s Purse has no timeline for how long they’ll be working in Central Park. “We are there as long as we’re needed,” said Kreitzburg. “If there continues to be a need in New York City, we’re going to stay here.”

It often feels like the virus operates the way a totalitarian regime might, dealing out violence in secret, disappearing its victims with no logic aside from the infliction of terror, burying them with the faintest possible earthly trace. “Sometimes people find out on a random WhatsApp group that their best friend just died,” says Meyer Labin, a Hasidic writer from Borough Park—an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn that has been especially hard-hit. “It’s insane.”

Rabbi Larry Rochwachs, the rabbi at Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck, New Jersey, recalled a recent conversation with a congregant who wanted to know if Kaddish would be said over her father’s grave—because of the virus’ rapid spread through the New York metro area, rules for how many people could attend a burial were shifting by the day and depended on the cemetery. “I wanted so much to be able to say yes. In any other situation in the world I would have said absolutely, whatever we need to do, of course there’ll be a Kaddish. It was heartbreaking to say, ‘I don’t know.’”

Within the Jewish community, one of the most remarkable documents of the virus’ cruelty is a set of guidelines that Rabbi Elchonon Zohn sent on March 20 to New York-area chevrot kadisha—groups which clean and prepare the dead in accordance with Jewish law. Most people want as little contact as possible with death or with anything else that reminds them of their inherent frailty and impermanence. For this reason, many Jews have never seen a chevre kadisha in action, and thus have little sense of the potential indignities the virus might inflict on its victims even after they die.

Zohn’s recommendations, many of them highly technical, were aimed at ensuring that chevre kadisha members could work as efficiently as possible in as little proximity to one another as possible. That meant that aspects of the purification process had to be altered in discomforting ways. But the pandemic could not be allowed to win: In the course of making aspects of a chevre kadisha’s work impossible, the coronavirus could have the effect of affirming how sacred and urgent its task is.

“On a personal note, I must mention that these guidelines are very difficult for me to recommend and distribute,” Rabbi Zohn wrote. “In so many ways, they contradict what I have taught for many years. However, the underlying basis of all we do is Toras Emes and Minhag Yisroel. Torah requires that we react to special times with special rules ... I believe it is appropriate to feel pained that we are abbreviating procedures that give kavod [honor] to the meis [the dead], even though this has become necessary. That feeling of distress on the behalf of the meis is a form of kavod hameis on its own. Moreover, perhaps that pain will reduce the possibility that these temporary changes will decrease our sensitivity to the holy work we are privileged to perform.”

Across New York, the Jewish social infrastructure has been stretched to the brink, pulled further than anyone thought it would ever have to be. By the final week in March, New York’s Hatzalah—the 1,200-personnel, 100-vehicle, all-volunteer Jewish ambulance service—was seeing three times its normal call volume, and had instituted a number of changes in protocol in order to protect both its volunteers and the health care system from the ravages of the virus. Volunteers were told to assume that all patients were COVID-19-positive and to only send one or two people into a patient’s home, rather than the usual three or four.

The Met Council on Jewish Poverty—the New York area’s largest charity serving the Jewish community—is anticipating the need for its services will triple just as 20% of its food pantries, and 40% of the city’s, are having to shut down due to the spiking cost of wholesale food and a plunge in available labor. “In neighborhoods where we would only do one food distribution, we’re now doing four,” Executive Director David Greenfield says. The organization’s social workers are conducting 500, 15-minute sessions each week with people seeking help in accessing government benefits or other forms of aid.

For the city’s Jews, community has become a source of both danger and protection. Crown Heights, Williamsburg, and Borough Park are places where everyone knows and sees everyone else. “You can look at it as one big giant family that lost so many members,” Labin says of his neighborhood. For many, daily life is organized around spending time with a group of at least 10 people three times a day. The coronavirus preys on such tightknit places, and yet cohesion is also a line of defense. In Crown Heights, an organization of local Jewish medical professionals set up a help line early in the crisis and has now conducted an extensive survey tracking the virus’ impact among the area’s Chabad Hasidim.

March and April are the giving season in religious communities—charitable fundraising drives are often built around the upcoming Passover holiday. In every neighborhood, there are existing volunteer and charitable organizations, many of which are now under intense strain. The economic crisis means that former donors are now recipients. In a normal year everyone would give something if they could, as Alex Rapaport, director of the Masbia soup kitchen explained. Rapaport mentioned a neighbor of his who installs kitchen equipment for a living and is usually busy in the runup to Passover. The coronavirus has effectively put him out of work. “Last year he gave to the Pesach campaigns. This year he’s on line at the soup kitchens.” Rapaport says that demand for Masbia’s services is at roughly five times its normal levels and that the organization is distributing $100,000 worth of food every day, much of it to people who aren’t Jewish. “We’re actually giving matzo to people in seven different languages. There are lots of immigrants on line from many different countries of the world, and they can have matzo for the first time.”

Masbia will halt distributions over Passover. By then, Rapaport says, “There isn’t going to be a single piece of food in our facility.”

Supply isn’t Rapaport’s biggest problem, though—it’s labor. People are getting sick at a time when additional assistance is required to scale up operations. A shrinking pool of workers and volunteers is an issue throughout Jewish charitable organizations. The need is increasing while capacity rapidly contracts.

“Right now, our volunteers are at a very low number,” says Goldie Deutsch, coordinator for the Satmar Bikur Cholim of Borough Park. In normal times, Bikur Cholim maintains stockpiles of free kosher food and other such supplies in New York-area hospitals. Now that hospitals are closed to visitors, Deutsch and her volunteers have mostly been delivering food to coronavirus patients and their families. They are struggling to keep up. “We get a lot of phone calls for shiva houses,” says Deutsch. “People are sitting shiva and they need food. People are overwhelmed, but we have to use a thousand-times bigger word than overwhelmed ... We feel helpless. And in our organization we were taught from our cradle: Never say no. No matter where we are financially, we can never say no. “

One organization that has seen an especially wrenching jump in need is Links, which assists children in the Orthodox community who have lost a parent. Last week, Sarah Rivkah Kohn, the organization’s Borough Park-based founder and director, explained that 21 new families had approached her group in the previous 10 days, which is the number it would see during a typical four-to-five-month period. Since the crisis began, Kohn has conducted Zoom video sessions with preschool-age kids and received phone calls from children who got her number second- or third-hand.

“This kind of grieving is a very different kind of grieving,” Kohn explained. There’s the enormity of the disaster, suddenness of the disease, and the cruel impossibility of a normal shiva and funeral. “There is a sense that this just spun out of control so quickly, so fast. My father or my mother were just here, and now they’re not.” Kohn anticipates that her organization’s budgeting for therapy will have to dramatically increase, although the impact of the crisis is too vast to measure right now. “It’s a very unique and different kind of loss ... It’s just something where we don’t have the answers yet.”

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.