It must be all hands to the pump to save lives

Mill Hill United synagogue under Covid restrictions, including social distancing and masks (Credit: Marc Morris via Jewish News)
Mill Hill United synagogue under Covid restrictions, including social distancing and masks (Credit: Marc Morris via Jewish News)
Look, I could use a bit of help. I know you’re busy, but we’re in this together and it really is a matter of life and death. The problem we have to solve is how to get very Orthodox Jews to stop going to shul.
I happened to be passing a local shtiebl recently and as I was going by, somebody went in and I could see the place was packed.
Now we know all the arguments for not talking about this. It reflects badly on the community. So should I explain to somebody elderly who catches the infection “Look I’m sorry I can’t make a fuss about this, but it reflects badly on the community, so you’ll just have to take your chances and if you die, you die.” No, I wish I were joking, but if you’re going to get coronavirus, you’re going to have to catch it from somebody, and we have lost twice as many dead as we should have done as a percantage of the population.
If you’re young, of course, you’re going to recover if you do get it, but if you pass it on to somebody elderly, they are at real risk. Imagine going to visit the family sitting Shiva and saying you’re sorry you gave it to them, you had absolutely no intention of killing them, but these things do happen.
Our sages – as usual – worked out the answer millennia ago. They really were a very intelligent bunch. The first thing they said in the third century was Dina de Malchuta Dina – the law of the country in which you live is your law too. Never mind waiting for the Chief Rabbi to back up the government; he’s done that, but if the government says do something, do it. Never mind what they’re doing after the pubs close in the North East; if you’re a Jew, do what the government says.
The other law is Pekuach Nefesh – you can break any law if it’s going to save life. Not passing on coronavirus is going to save life.
The most difficult argument to question is, it’s in the lap of the Almighty; if the Almighty decided on Yom Kippur that someone’s time was up, that’s it. But that argument leads you to risking committing suicide, and there is no more heinous sin in the book than committing suicide. We don’t know what the Almighty has decided, but we certainly must have the right to put up as good a defence as possible.
Now, for all those who went into lockdown last March and are patiently waiting to come out of it, this may all be perfectly obvious, but those shtiebel members I saw are still packing into the limited space and ignoring the possible consequences.
The average congregation has gone to work to obey the rules, including the Charedim. Seats are split up, extra rooms are used for services, the services are shorter to allow more people to say their prayers. The fact remains that a larger percentage of Jews have died than should have done, as a proportion of the citizenry. Can we put it down to poverty, or poor housing? We could possibly blame obesity, but other ethnic communities have  greater social problems.
Now what can we do? We could tell the police, but can you really see the minefield when congregations at prayer are broken up as a result? I’m not arguing that it’s asking far too much, for that is what we should do, but it’s not very likely. There is nothing, however, to stop us appealing to the lay and spiritual leaders to make social distancing the company policy and flavour of the week.
Of course it isn’t easy. It is pointed out that people’s mental health can easily suffer from continuous social distancing. How would your mental health be affected, however, if you had to face up to the fact that you had killed somebody.
That would normally seem to be ludicrously exaggerating. Only in this one specific instance it isn’t.  520 Jews have died and 520 people gave them the infection. They may not have been Jews; that’s another excuse for doing nothing, but if you were in any danger of running a pedestrian down, wouldn’t you brake?
Well, I  certainly can’t deal with this by myself. Your help would be invaluable. I agree that the appeal should come, as it does, from Her Majesty or Boris Johnson but with Britain suffering the largest number of fatalities in Europe, it’s surely all hands to the wheel.
About the Author
Derek is an author & former editor of the Jewish Year Book
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