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Opening shuls in two weeks way too early, expert warns

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Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein announced on Tuesday, 2 June, that he would wait another two weeks before deciding whether to reopen shuls in South Africa. However, medical expert Professor Barry Schoub, says that “to countenance opening shuls at this stage of the epidemic in South Africa is unequivocally highly dangerous and a life-threatening risk to the community at large”.
by TALI FEINBERG | Jun 04, 2020

The chief rabbi has held off opening shuls after President Cyril Ramaphosa gave the green light for places of worship in South Africa to reopen on 1 June, allowing only 50 people to attend services at a time.

“After a series of meetings and consultation with a wide range of stakeholders involved at all levels of shul leadership as well as medical experts, widespread support has now emerged for a two-week moratorium on our shuls reopening,” said Goldstein.

“The plan is that until Tuesday 16 June, our shuls will hold off on reopening, and that we use this period to assess the unfolding health situation in the country at large and the readiness and capability of shuls to implement the very strict health and safety protocols that need to be in place. I will be in contact with you over this time as we plot the way forward post-June 16.”

However, Schoub, the founding and former director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases of South Africa and professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand, said considering opening shuls in two weeks was way too early.

“The proposal to consider opening shuls after a two-week moratorium can only be condemned in the strongest terms, in my opinion. It comes from more than four decades of experience and background in virology and public health, consulting in South Africa and for the World Health Organization. Against this background, I have volunteered my expertise to the Jewish community.

“The worst phase of the outbreak is still to come. Houses of worship have been shown in numerous studies overseas to be amongst the most dangerous environments to spread the epidemic. The very ill-conceived decision by the government, in response to lobbying by faith leaders, has been widely criticised, including by the College of Public Health Medicine of South Africa.

“Over and above this, the additional ravages of the pandemic in the Jewish populations of New York, the United Kingdom, France, and elsewhere is testimony to the even greater risk of opening Jewish houses of worship,” says Schoub. “The reassurance of strict adherence to government regulations provides little comfort and will be unable to stem the spread of the epidemic. The two-week moratorium makes absolutely no sense to me.”

Professor Valerie Mizrahi, a molecular biologist and the director of the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, says, “I was pleased to hear that there is a two-week moratorium on shuls re-opening. I strongly support this decision, which is consistent with that made by other religious leaders on behalf of their communities.

“The epidemic in South Africa is growing, and epidemiologists have warned that the situation will worsen before it improves,” she says. “The epidemic in the Western Cape is expected to peak in early July, and even later in other provinces, where it is at an earlier stage. Health services in the Cape Town metro are already under great pressure. This will intensify in the next few weeks as we approach the peak.

“Given that congregate settings such as shuls are particularly high-risk areas for transmission, it’s entirely appropriate to hold off on re-opening shuls at this time. I understand, only too well, how challenging this is for members of our community who are yearning to return to shul. I lost my own father a month ago. Keeping shuls closed is a sacrifice which we must continue to make, not only for the sake of our fellow congregants, but for the country, at large.”

Shaun Zagnoev, the national chairperson of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, said, “At the outset of the crisis, the Jewish communal leadership asked medical experts Professor Barry Schoub and Dr Richard Friedland to guide our community on all decisions relating to the community. Both of these experts have opposed the reopening of shuls, and we believe that their opinion should be the basis for decision-making on all aspects of communal life at this time.”

Rabbis across the country have supported the chief rabbi’s announcement. One rabbi, speaking on condition of anonymity said, “All the minyanim in South Africa aren’t worth the life of one Jew. Hashem allows us to pray at home, and when the minyan can pose a risk to one Jewish soul, then all the minyanim have to stop.

“The chief rabbi has consulted everyone – the rabbis, the Beth Din, the Rabbinic Association. He has the full support of all the senior rabbis and some of the junior rabbis who may be at less risk but understand that congregants’ lives come first.”

Rabbi Asher Deren of The Shul on the West Coast in Cape Town says, “I’m encouraged by the chief rabbi's decisive leadership, starting with closing the shuls even before the virus began to spread locally at perhaps the earliest relative point of any Jewish community in the world. That step has undoubtedly saved lives. I’m further inspired by his current decision, taken in thorough consultation with stakeholders across the board. This underscores the gravity with which he is approaching the matter.”

Rabbi Dovid Hazdan of the Great Park Shul says, “South Africa is blessed with a united, collaborative rabbinate. The chief rabbi invited all rabbis to share views and diverse perspectives. He did the same when he met the lay leadership of shuls across the country. In these challenging times, I’m grateful to have the camaraderie and support of our rabbinate and our exceptional Jewish community.”

Rabbi Sam Thurgood of Beit Midrash Morasha in Cape Town says, “We all share a deep concern for the health and safety of our community, as well as the need to provide a sacred space for tefillah [prayer]. Different communities have different needs, and for us, Shabbat services are likely to resume before the weekday ones, but we’re not rushing into anything and will continue to take advice.”

Rabbi Sa’ar Shaked of the Beit Emanuel Progressive Synagogue says, “The South African Union for Progressive Judaism (SAUPJ) is an alliance of shuls rather than a top-down body. The elected leaderships of the different shuls are the ones responsible for ensuring that their campuses comply with all relevant regulations. We, the rabbis, and the SAUPJ national leadership, will naturally assist, but the authority to act belongs to the shuls rather than to the movement.

“For example, Bet David in Sandton will experiment with limited services from its campus earlier than others, starting with just the rabbi broadcasting from his bimah. At Beit Emanuel, we won’t re-open the campus for the time being. The Cape Town congregations share our approach.”

Rabbi Greg Alexander of Temple Israel Progressive Hebrew Congregation in Cape Town says, “The value of pikuach nefesh [saving a life] is one of our most sacred values as Jews, so our shul buildings will continue to remain closed for the time being.”

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