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America’s Largest Population of Holocaust Survivors Is Endangered by the Coronavirus as Crown Heights and Borough Park Shut Down

The pandemic inflicts miseries that are particular to each place it visits

Armin Rosen
March 24, 2020
Ron Adar/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Ron Adar/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Ron Adar/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Ron Adar/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

By last Wednesday afternoon the outer doors of 770 Eastern Parkway were locked, while the doors connecting the complex’s narrow lobby to the rambunctious communal shul for New York’s Chabad Hasidim were chained shut. The unthinkable was occurring. The Mitzvah Tanks sat idle on Kingston Avenue, Crown Heights’ typically lively ultra-Orthodox main street, which is now almost fully emptied of people. The mikvah and the Beit Din were closed, although in the latter case, “drop-off for shaalos can be done in the door slot as always,” per a posted notice. Pallets of paper towels and toilet paper crowded the entrance to nearby Empire Kosher, where the shoppers seemed every bit as fearful of one another—or, perhaps, every bit as wary of revealing their fears to one another—as the people in my local Walgreens a couple neighborhoods north. “You see,” said Dovid Margolin, an editor for and my guide around virus-era Crown Heights last week, “there are no old people here.”

The coronavirus pandemic is perhaps the first total event in human history. There have been other spells of worldwide pestilence and conflict, but this is the only one to occur during a time of instantaneous mass communication and high-speed global travel—and maybe the only one to occur during an era in which there is theoretically a species-wide agreement on the intrinsic value of human life.

And yet the pandemic inflicts miseries that are particular to each place it visits. On Wednesday at 770, there were maybe 15 young men standing around a long table stacked with religious texts. I began chatting with two chavruta partners who were sitting together next to the Eastern Parkway bike path, studying the section of the Shulchan Aruch about religious courts—the pages they might have otherwise been probing if their yeshiva had stayed open (all the religious schools in Crown Heights had suspended operations at noon the previous Friday). They, and the nearby group of 15, were all speaking Hebrew to one another. These were students who had no family in America, nothing to do, nowhere else to go. The resilience of the Crown Heights community, and of Orthodox communities in general, comes from their close-knit, multigenerational families, a ready-made support network when things take an unexpected turn for the surreal. These students only had each other.

Everywhere else in the neighborhood, a visitor could feel the presence of people hiding behind brick walls and closed doors. On Crown Street, someone blasted a recording of the Shema from a high balcony, followed by “Ouf Ghazal” or “Fly, Fledgeling,” a beloved secular Israeli folk song by the late Arik Einstein whose lyrics are an extended metaphor for a parents’ hopes and fears for their young in an unpredictable world. Maybe the listeners found the music heartening—but they were inside, invisible.

Dovid and I made our way down Albany Avenue. A young man passed money through the door of the Sauce N Cheese kosher pizzeria, which had banned takeout customers from entering. On a typical day, Dovid would make it to 6:30 a.m. Shacharit at the Anshe Lubavitch synagogue before heading to work. We spotted someone at the door. “Yitzi, are you locking up for good?” Dovid yelled from across the street. All shuls in Crown Heights had been closed since last Tuesday afternoon. Now, a day later, the metal roll gate was coming down over Anshe Lubavitch, with no sense of when it would be opened again.

Closing a synagogue is no small matter—even in the darkest moments of World War II it was sometimes still possible to find a minyan. Dovid said that locals got over their resistance as soon as they began receiving WhatsApp messages asking them to recite tehilim for COVID-19 patients they personally knew. “This got real very quickly,” he said. “There’s nobody serious saying no, we need to keep the shuls open.”

Well-being came first, even if it required the worst possible sacrilege.

If anything, Chabad Hasidim were looking for precedents that would justify such an extreme step. On WhatsApp, some were recalling Menachem Mendel of Horodok, who recorded the closure of shuls during a plague in Tiberias in the 1700s. In another story in WhatsApp circulation, a Litvak rabbi went to extreme ends to demonstrate to his congregation just how dire things were during a long-ago plague year in Prague. On Yom Kippur, the rabbi got up and made kiddush, “to show that this is not acceptable, but that this is still what God wants.” Human well-being came first, even if it required the worst possible sacrilege.

Dovid and I kept walking down Albany. From beneath his balcony I met Berel Majesky, who directs the Friendship Circle, an organization that helps developmentally disabled children and their families. For the families his group works with, the sudden lack of face-to-face therapy and closure of specialized schools could prove devastating. “Any stability they had in their life is gone,” he said.

In his own home, Majesky was making his four children create schedules for themselves each night for the next day, and his kids had hours of daily online instruction. “That same God who told us to pray, that God wants us to be at home right now,” said Majesky. “We know that the outcome of this will be beautiful and amazing. We just have to wait for it to play out.”

Dovid and I made our way back up Albany. There was almost no one else around, but a familiar voice had echoed through the streets while I spoke to Majesky: that of Pop Smoke, the Brooklyn rapper whose death in a Feb. 19 home invasion in Los Angeles will be inextricably linked to the pandemic for many New Yorkers, a premonition of even darker events to come. Throughout Brooklyn, Pop Smoke is a disquieting growl from beyond the grave, a baritone Greek chorus blasting from car stereos, narrating a catastrophe he fell eerily short of witnessing.

“Listen, everyone’s going nuts to a degree because you’re not used to this,” Dovid acknowledged. At funerals, people were no longer shoveling dirt on their loved one’s casket—no one, including the gravediggers, were allowed to touch the shovels. What would the first Shabbat of quarantine be like? “I have no idea,” was Dovid’s answer, unarguably accurate. Like Majesky, he has several young children at home, in need of structure and comfort.

At 6:45, we arrived on a block of Carroll Street, in the heart of Hasidic Crown Heights. A half-dozen people gathered in the street, and a white-bearded man, wearing a look that seemed to alternate between severity and dread, pleaded from a nearby porch: “There has been a request from Haztalah for people to stand 10 to 15 feet apart. Please—Hatzalah is getting hundreds of calls.”

Daveners appeared on the surrounding stoops and balconies but vanished as soon as Mincha ended. There was no small talk, no chattering even on the street. A different, just as ashen-faced older man announced: “Tomorrow morning we’ll have a sefer Torah but please, keep your distance on the streets.”

The planned Thursday-morning service almost certainly never happened. A couple hours after Mincha, the Beit Din of Crown Heights put out a notice: “We wish to make clear that the guidelines regarding the closure of shules apply equally to house minyanim and outdoor minyanim; it is our opinion that individuals should daven alone in their houses at this time.”

In many respects, Brooklyn’s Orthodox enclaves are well equipped to face the virus. These are strong communities that have existed for decades, where everyone knows each other, and where dozens of members of the same family often live close by. They have robust channels of mutual aid and respected lines of authority—virus-era Crown Heights and Borough Park will have none of the anomie or loneliness of Bushwick, however bad this all gets.

In Crown Heights, a group of roughly 50 Jewish medical professionals living in the neighborhood had set up a blog and a telephone helpline by last Tuesday afternoon. Farther south, in Borough Park, the Masbia soup kitchen opened an hour early on Thursday. Around 3 p.m., a truck from upstate unloaded roughly $70,000 worth of matzo; the inside of the kitchen, located under the subway tracks on New Utrecht Avenue, was stacked with boxes of grape juice for the upcoming holiday, though many of Masbia’s beneficiaries—whose number had jumped by 40% across its three locations since the recent beginning of the crisis, according to Alexander Rapaport, the kitchen’s director—are not Jewish. Rapaport pointed to half-empty shelves, opposite the boxes of grape juice and matzo. “This was full yesterday. It’s all depleted. Now we’re unpacking again. You could go swimming in boxes over there,” he said, pointing to the stoop.

Rapaport pivoted anxiously between the extra security help he had hired for crowd control and his staff, one of whom poured garlic powder into a simmering vat. This was the last day they would be cooking onsite. Rapaport said they’d bulk-purchased from the local provider for kosher meals on El Al flights. “We jumped on it,” he said. “They gave us a good deal.”

The crisis is everywhere you look in Borough Park. Seemingly every single article in Jewish Vues, a newsletter for New York-area Orthodox communities, is about the coronavirus outbreak. Half the lampposts have Yiddish-language notices with pictures of surgical masks on them; at newsstands, the cover of the Yiddish Die Voch magazine shows a Haredi man with a mask on. Bingo, a kosher superstore and an overall Jewish answer to Costco, had staffers handing out surgical gloves to shoppers, who would then watch as customers put them on. As in Crown Heights, the epidemic became real here with frightening speed: By the end of last week there were as many as 400 positive tests reported in Borough Park and Williamsburg.

Borough Park has its own Jewish nerve center, a minyan factory at 13th Avenue and 53rd Street. The shteebelach is closed now. “There’s a very strong emotional resonance to closing a synagogue. There are synagogues here that have operated continuously every day for 100 years that are closing for the first time,” said Yosef Rapaport, a rabbi, Yiddish podcaster, father of Alexander, and grandfather of 40. “For many people this is the equivalent of the Western Wall in America,” he said of the shuttered shteebelach. “All kinds of Jews come there. It belongs to everyone.”

That afternoon, Rapaport had conducted a Yiddish-language interview with a niece, an ICU nurse. News percolated across WhatsApp—rumors of rebbes who had tested positive, word of a charity in Monsey that couldn’t handle the hundreds of calls an hour it was receiving. New and completely unexpected questions struck like meteors, basic dilemmas of how people were supposed to live now and into an uncertain future. Rapaport explained that in Borough Park, it was common to drop by weddings for which one did not receive an official invite, at least after the chuppah and meal. “There are nights where I stop by 10 weddings to say mazel tov.” This was a very cool practice, I remarked. “It’s cool,” Yosef agreed, “but it might turn out to be deadly.”

Rapaport wondered whether the authorities had been too slow in banning gatherings, perhaps not understanding the constant social proximity intrinsic to life in Borough Park and other religious communities. “Well, the government says 50 people is OK, there’s only 30 people here,” he said, recalling the mentality of just a few days earlier, back in another reality. “But, maybe this place has had 100 people there since the morning.” Still, in very short order, people in parts of Borough Park had become sharply judgmental of anyone seen leaving their house. “The difference between Haredim in America and Israel is that here, it’s mind your own business. The tighter you live, the more people say, give us some space. Here’s it’s like you’re on the subway. You’re into a minyan, and then you’re out.”

In the space of a few days, there had been a total shutdown of Jewish life in New York City, something unprecedented, unthinkable. The sudden decompression had engendered a new self-enforcement, a general awareness that the enemy was already inside the gates. Rapaport said he lived on the same block as a 90-year-old couple, one of whom had spent World War II in Vichy France. The other was a survivor of Auschwitz. Although only the very young seem to be immune from the virus, it is especially deadly among people over 70.

“In our community now we have the last remnants of the survivors of Auschwitz,” Rapaport told me, his voice breaking. “Most live within a few blocks of where you are sitting. We’re in danger of losing all of them. ... It’s a horrible thing to have on your conscience, of putting the last nail in the coffin of their generation.”

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.

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