A Rabbi’s Tale—Self Quarantine in the Age of the Coronavirus

“Sometimes even rabbis do the wrong thing.”

But before we learn about our wayward rabbi, let’s learn about our protagonist.

That’s me your friendly blogger.

In another life, before my retirement and my illustrious career as a blogger for the Times of Israel, I was the attorney for the Miami-Dade County Health Department.

For 35 years, I toiled to prevent the spread of communicable diseases in my community utilizing the courts, my law license and the public health codes.

So many memories.

I lived through the AIDS crisis and we are still living through it—where I watched many of my friends and fellow co-workers wither away. Here was a pandemic that  has killed an estimated 32 million people worldwide. But it primarily affected the sexually promiscuous who refused to wear condoms or the sharer of used syringes.

At first, doctors and dentists refused to treat AIDS patients.

I feared of shaking hands with a victim of AIDS.

I read— on a daily basis— the obits in the Miami Herald. and I counted the number of young men who had passed away from “pneumonia.”

Fear floated in the air much as it does in the age of corona.

I remembered the airborne diseases—TB, H1N1, bird flu and SARS.

During the SARS crisis, I calculated how many ventilators we had in Miami-Dade County hospitals. (Not that many)

And again I realized that the government’s greatest fear during the pandemic is not having enough ventilators to keep its coronavirus patient population alive.

I questioned, “When all the ventalators were in use, what ethical standards would be placed on the hospital’s medical staff. Would it be “barbershop rules” of first-come-first-serve or would they use the safe-the-young-the-old-have-already-lived-their-lives standard.”

With my public health code, medical expert testimony and  judges, I prosecuted noncompliant TB chronic coughers. These poor individuals ended up spending 180 days at the state tuberculosis hospital or until they were no longer were communicable or until they died in captivity.

These patients ended up being quarantined in AG Holly TB Hospital.

These alcoholics and drug abusing patients were often infected with AIDS and TB. Their desire to score and abuse drugs and alcohol greatly outweighed their ability to take their daily doses of TB medications.

TB, an airborne communicable disease, still kills approxiately 1.6 million people worldwide each year.

I remembered my pride in saying, “I quarantined more TB patients than any other lawyer in America  saving  many Americans from getting consumption.”

I produced and directed a SARS social distancing short film entitled, “Pandemic.”

And I worked on a case where a rabbi violated a SARS self-quarantine order.

This is that rabbi’s tale.

A tale where religion and public health collided.

A tale on how I made a man of the cloth obey Florida’s quarantine laws and the Torah.

This rabbi had managed to visit China and two other Far Eastern nations where SARS rampantly killed the populous.

This rabbi, who on his return to the States, was told in writing, “You are under home quarantine. You may not leave your house until you are given permission to do so by the director the health department.”

This rabbi graduated from an Ivy League school with  a degree in attitude.

This rabbi considered himself wiser, smarter and more knowing of G-d and science than the lowly public health workers who failed to persuade him that he could be a killer of Jews in his Miami Beach congregation.

He felt fine and he loved davening in his shul.

What did these peons at the health department know.

So every morning, we walked ten blocks to his temple, prayed and returned to his home.

We knew a strong message had to be sent to the rabbi.

A message with consequences as deadly as the SARS virus.

A psychological message with religious overtones.

A message that would float fear in the rabbi’s head.

And I would be the messenger to visit him in his house wearing my N-95 mask.

The prophet of fear for this quarantine violator—A rabbi who had forgotten the Ten Commandments.

The man with the plan to teach a rabbi that actions have consequences.

Holding a manila envelope, I met the rabbi at his front door.

Here’s what was said.

“Good afternoon rabbi, my name is Mort Laitner, attorney for the health department. It’s a pleasure to meet you in person. Can I have a few minutes of your time?”

I did not offer to shake his hand but I handed him my business card.

He stared at my mask and studied the card as if it were a forgery and he was a master detective.

As he glanced to see if any of his neighbors were watching, he said, “Of course, why don’t you come in.”

I lowered my voice one octave.

“Rabbi, I going to make my schpiel short and not so sweet. We’ve observed you breaking our quarantine order. We’re not happy with your behavior. We have you on video walking to shul and attending services.

Here’s an envelope which contains an emergency order signed by the county health director. I’m going to  rundown for you what it says:

The police will be monitoring you on a daily basis.

You shall contact us immediately if you feel sick.

If we catch you leaving your house without our permission, the Miami Beach Police Department pick you up and transport you to the communicable disease jail at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

The cops shall be doing this in broad daylight, in front of all your neighbors wearing masks and using an ambulance.

We shall be placing a yellow quarantine tape around your house.

We shall be contacting all of your neighbors to see if they have had any recent contact with you.

We shall be getting in touch with all the members of your temple.

The media may be called to assist us in seeing who else you have visited.

In this envelope, to impress upon you our seriousness, I’ve included photographs of the cell in which you will be housed.

I’ve included the name and phone number of the chief epidemiologist in Tallahassee. He’s a pretty smart guy. I think he attended an Ivy League school, call him if you have any medical questions.

Do you have any questions for me?”

I watched the rabbi think and nod his head.

His eyes floated in fear.

Well rabbi, I think I made myself perfectly clear, govern yourself accordingly and daven at home.”

As I exited the door, I handed a copy of the Ten Commandments to the rabbi and said, “Read number five.”

About the Author
South Florida's Jewish short-story writer, speaker, film producer and retired attorney. He has authored, "A Hebraic Obsession", "The Hanukkah Bunny" and "The Greatest Gift." He produced an award-winning short film entitled, "The Stairs". Movie can be viewed on my TOI blog. Mort is a correspondent for the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel Jewish Journal.
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