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What Communal Responsibility Looks Like

The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County has set a lifesaving example that the rest of us must follow

The Editors
March 12, 2020

On Thursday morning, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, New Jersey, took the unprecedented step of shutting down the area’s Jewish institutions. Even in the face of the deadly and rapidly spreading coronavirus, this could not have been an easy decision; yet, it was the right one and we commend the rabbis’ leadership. Those who do not lead will follow soon enough as mandatory closures and other “social distancing” policies—the only proven method of containing the spread of the coronavirus—become the norm in both secular and religious institutions across the country. But how many lives will be lost or endangered while we wait?

The time to act is now.

The Jewish community is always strongest when it is unified. The decision to enforce social distancing and shut down synagogues and schools will undoubtedly entail substantial hardships but if we act together now, we can come up with solutions as a community.

Every day we wait will only make the eventual reckoning more costly, as the rabbis in New Jersey acknowledged in their letter:

The message from the healthcare providers was clear. They need our help to slow the spread of the disease before their resources are overwhelmed. … Slowing the spread of the disease will allow our hospitals to best manage this situation. The only way to do this is for us to socially distance ourselves from one another. Moreover, the doctors emphasized that the most significant community closure possible will make the greatest impact in potentially saving lives in our area.

Only after taking the first step of “social distancing” can we then begin the essential, difficult work of attending to the routine physical and spiritual needs of our communities. How will the elderly among us, who are most at risk, receive critical supplies if they are confined to their homes? How can a minyan be held if the attendees cannot safely gather in the same room? How will children learn if they cannot go to school? How can we be a community in isolation? We don’t claim to have the answers but these are the questions that need to be asked—and we should much rather be asking them than questioning ourselves over what more we could have done to prevent avoidable deaths.

Many of us—individuals as well as communal leaders—have been paralyzed by this moment, too afraid or distracted by panic to make hard or inconvenient decisions. Here, there’s an expression from the army that might help: “Go slow to go fast.” It’s a principle for coordinating the efforts of multiple people under stressful conditions to accomplish complex actions—like breaching and clearing an enemy-held building—and it suggests that if you try to go fast and let the urgency of the situation cause you to rush in headlong, you will fail. Instead, focusing on a deliberate, controlled sequence of movements allows a person, or many people working together, to achieve their results quickly. Jewish leaders may want to avoid inciting panic but right now they are going fast—flailing about as they wonder what to do—without getting anywhere at all. The next steps are clear; we just need to slow down enough to take them.

Every Jew knows the principle of pikuach nefesh, which allows for almost any commandment to be overridden to save a life. Nothing is greater than human life. If we act now, together, we can save lives.


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From the editors of Tablet Magazine.