Virus is a menace to the health of our minyanim

Western Marble Arch (Wikipedia/ Basher Eyre / The Western Marble Arch Synagogue in Great Cumberland Place / CC BY-SA 2.0 via Jewish News)
Western Marble Arch (Wikipedia/ Basher Eyre / The Western Marble Arch Synagogue in Great Cumberland Place / CC BY-SA 2.0 via Jewish News)

UK airlines demand a government bail-out if they are too survive; shopping centre group Intu on the brink; Israeli entertainment group Cinemax warns its days may be numbered; savers through their pensions and share ISAs sit on horrendous losses. Covid-19 is primarily a health crisis, a matter of life and death for the vulnerable, but it is also a financial and community crisis.

 What began for Britain’s Jewish community with some almost comical rulings about not kissing mezuzot or touching parading Torah scrolls is a much deeper crisis for practicing Judaism and the normal operations of the community.

As someone who emerged from 11 months of kaddish for my late father Michael Brummer (z’’l) last year I became reacquainted with the daily rhythms of Jewish life. In particular being able to access a minyan and to have the privilege of leading services in honour of the deceased was important.

But minyanim can be fragile. In my community of Richmond-upon-Thames, our Friday night minyan is healthy. It is almost certainly strengthened by the promise of single malt whisky (provided by a local connoisseur) and herring. But the core, even more so on Shabbat mornings, are a group of friends in their 60s and 70s – fit, well and intellectually strong – but in the eyes of Boris Johnson’s medical advisers, vulnerable.

As the corona virus infection has spread in the UK our own, sometimes weak minyan, has thinned out and left people wondering how long it will last. At the most recent Shabbat the sponsor of the Kiddush was missing, because of “slight illness” in the family. In far more robust St Johns Wood, services were suspended. Specific biological cleansing instructions were offered at the end of Richmond services. Other communities, one hears, have already abandoned the Kiddush,  the main incentive for attendance.

The Western Marble Arch morning and evening minyanim are normally strong. The core vibrancy reinforced by a welcoming atmosphere and the strong flow of visitors mainly from Israel and from all corners of the world. Strip away the visitors and the core is also often, with some notable exceptions, a more mature cohort, which on occasion includes me.  Without visitors, many locked down in Israel or elsewhere, the minyan weakens, especially when spouses start to wonder if shul is an unnecessary risk.

In the rest of the country making sure there is a minyan is tricky at the best of times. In Brighton, my native town, morning services – currently held in small room while a huge building projects takes place in West Hove – has been postponed on safety ground. It was deemed too small a space for safe davenning.

All of which is a little ludicrous as on most days the airy sanctuary of Hove Hebrew Congregation lies empty. The unnecessarily tense politics between the two orthodox communities in Hove means that even in the middle of a health crisis it has not been that easy to negotiate practical joint responses.

The fear for communities which are struggling (I do not include those mentioned above in this article) as is the case for businesses and much else is that Covid-19 could be an existential event. Once people lose the habit of morning services, even when wanting to say Kaddish, it may be tricky putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again. Some of the senior kingpins of minyanim could be lost.

The pull of north London and the Hertfordshire suburbs already has diminished Judaism in the British regions. Some in the north-east such as Middlesbrough faded a long time ago. Other once vibrant, booming communities – such as Cardiff and Brighton – are much diminished as are many others across the country. They hang on prosper and survive because Jews, wherever they are cleave for company.

It maybe the current virus will strengthen weak ties, as crises bring people together. But that becomes harder when much of the medical advice is about isolation. In much the same way as Covid-19 is seen as a challenge to corporate life and globalisation so it may also be a severe and tragic blow to the variety and choice of Jewish community life.

About the Author
Alex Brummer is the Daily Mail's City Editor
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