Israel’s Chief Rabbinate issued a call for Israelis to gather in synagogues across the country on Wednesday for a day of fasting and prayer in response to the spread of the coronavirus.
At the same time, the National Corona Information Center just published a report revealing that most of the Corona infections in Israel were spread in synagogues.
A full 29 percent of all infections that originated in Israel occurred in synagogues and yeshivas. The implication is that keeping synagogues open despite the government directives not to gather in groups caused a spike in coronavirus infections. The data does not include cases that were brought into the country from overseas. Almost half of all Israelis had contracted the coronavirus abroad.
The high rate of infection in synagogues is particularly alarming as most religious services around the country are attended regularly by the elderly, who are at a much higher risk from the virus. The report shows that of all Corona infections that originated in Israel, 15 percent were infected at a hotel, 12 percent at a restaurant, 7 percent while shopping at the supermarket, 7 percent in a store, 5 percent in a medical facility, 3 percent in the education system, 3 percent in a nursing home, 3 percent at a childcare center and the remaining at events, malls, in the gym and other social gatherings.
How can we pray?
Many rabbis attacked the initial decision not to close the synagogues, calling it a violation of Judaism’s focus on saving lives. Mayors of many cities closed local synagogues themselves, but without mandatory instruction from Yaakov Litzman, the ultra-Orthodox Minister of Health, many synagogues remained open long after other institutions had shut their doors.
“We congratulate the rabbinate’s decision on a worldwide prayer day,” said Rabbi Saul Farber, chairman of Itim. “However, we must not pray in a way that endangers the public. We also urge the Chief Rabbinate to follow the recommendations of the Ministry of Health and order the closure of the synagogues until the danger of the epidemic passes, and immediately insist that the prayers be conducted in a way that protects our citizens.”
New orders shutter synagogues
Later on Wednesday, and partially in response to the above dispute, the Netanyahu government issued new, stricter guidelines that included the mandatory closure of all places of worship, be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim.
Even if the synagogues could still open, they’d be empty, as Israelis are now forbidden to venture further than 100 meters (330 feet) from their homes, except for when stocking up on food or medication.