On Covid’s Jewish Frontlines: Leadership During Covid

Rabbi Mordechai Willig
By Sandy Eller

Posekim are no strangers to dealing with life-and-death questions posed to them by shul rabbanim as various situations arise. But as the pandemic struck, there were numerous instances when Rabbi Mordechai Willig found himself juggling well over a dozen such she’eilot simultaneously, a situation that was anything but common.

As doctors struggled to navigate a medical path through the pandemic, rabbis everywhere were facing unprecedented halachic issues as the most basic components of everyday life were called into question. Being able to daven in shul was suddenly up in the air, and as schools and businesses closed and quarantines became a reality, life-cycle events like weddings, bar mitzvahs, britot, levayot and shivah visits had to be restructured through the prism of the pandemic.

Rabbi Mordechai Willig and Rabbi Hershel Schachter, both roshei yeshivah and roshei kollel at Yeshiva University, burned the midnight oil for months on end as Covid transformed the world.

“They really gave themselves over to the rabbinic community and we all knew we could call at any moment, with any issues,” recalls Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, rabbi of the Young Israel of Passaic-Clifton in New Jersey and the dean of YU’s Center for the Jewish Future and University Life. “The most remarkable part was that as we were all preparing shiurim about Covid issues and had to learn how to proceed, it seemed as if someone had come up to Rabbi Schachter and Rabbi Willig eight months before the pandemic and warned them to brush up on their knowledge, because they just knew the answers to the questions that arose. You really saw their mastery of halachah as they were able to draw from so many places and sources in real time to address she’eilot that had likely never been asked before in our lifetimes.”

One unique issue that arose immediately was how to sell chametz with practically the entire world on lockdown. Rabbi Willig shaped policies for online mechirah that were used by shuls nationwide.

“Just the guidance on how to prioritize in the context of a pandemic—where to be flexible and where not to be—was crucial,” observes Rabbi Glasser. “Rabbis wanted to be able to lead communities in a way that these flexibilities would not become concretized in religious life as the new norm.”

Rabbi Willig worked hand in hand with Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt on the myriad medical issues that arose in every aspect of religious life to ensure that all piskei halachah were based on medical facts.

“That set an example that you couldn’t go through the pandemic listening to a million articles and people,” notes Rabbi Glasser. “Rabbi Willig never wavered on the idea that you need an expert and you have to trust them. The message that we as rabbanim got was that doing your hishtadlut meant listening to doctors and that emunah is understanding that those results are what is supposed to be, without second-guessing them.”

In addition to giving Zoom shiurim and playing a significant role in shaping communal policies, Rabbi Willig fielded hundreds of questions at all hours of day and night:

Q: People who have prepaid for a rental in Florida from other frum owners for Pesach were asked to stay away. Do they have a halachic right to get their money back?

Rav Willig: All dinei mamonot she’eilot should wait till after the crisis.

Q: What’s the halachah with regard to cremating Jews who have passed away from Covid?

Rav Willig: It is absolutely prohibited.

Q: A couple is getting married in their cousin’s backyard, but the hosts do not want anyone to enter the house. What can be done about the yichud room? Can yichud be postponed until after the wedding (in some other location) if there are two witnesses?

Rav Willig: Yes. Eidot Hamizrach [Sephardim] never have yichud.)

Both his and Rabbi Schachter’s leadership became a unifying force among communities nationwide, and as a shul rav himself, Rabbi Willig understood what local rabbanim were facing.

“Rabbis call their rabbis all the time,” says Rabbi Glasser, “but in this case, there was a sense of confidence that came across from the posekim that we have a mesorah and a halachic system and we will be able to draw direction and clarity. We never felt lost; we knew there were people we could call.”

 

Rabbi Asher Weiss
By Yocheved Lavon

From the moment the world became aware of the virus that was about to sweep the globe, Rabbi Asher Weiss stepped up to the mic to offer both halachic guidance and encouragement to his tzibbur, which is as widespread as the pandemic itself. Throughout the crisis, his has been a voice of clarity and compassion.

A Sanz-Klausenburger chassid raised in Borough Park, Brooklyn, Rabbi Asher Weiss resides in Jerusalem, where he serves as rosh kollel of Machon Minchas Osher L’Torah V’Horaah and heads Beis Din Darchei Torah. In addition to his many other roles, Rabbi Weiss serves as a posek for OU Kosher; the OU consults with him on various halachic issues related to kashrut.

Rabbi Yaacov Haber, rav of Kehillas Shivtei Yeshurun in Ramat Beit Shemesh, has a close relationship with Rabbi Weiss. In Rabbi Haber’s words: “I’ve been working with Rav Asher Weiss for a number of years now, and needless to say, he is an expert in all areas of Torah and in pesak halachah, paralleled by few in the generation with his wealth of knowledge and the ability to apply his learning to every modern situation. But there is something that is very unusual about Rav Asher Weiss, which sets him apart from the rest. Every once in a while, God sends to the world a certain type of neshamah, a certain type of person who’s able to transcend all the divisions among the Jewish people. Whatever divides us, somehow there’s a place on top that everyone respects. Rav Weiss has become a voice of leadership, a voice of sanity, and a voice of halachah for all types of Jews—every different stream, from Tel Aviv to Bnei Brak—a very unusual thing to see. This is a very special gift that Hashem gave us for this generation.”

Throughout the crisis, [Rav Asher Weiss] has been a voice of clarity and compassion.

Rabbi Weiss is fluent in English, Hebrew and Yiddish, and his facility with language is just one aspect of his ability to connect with every kind of Jew. With true humility, he speaks out of a strong sense of responsibility to publicize his halachic opinion, whether popular or not, regarding it as “a sin,” in his words, to keep silent.

With regard to Covid, Rav Weiss has consistently urged the public to follow the guidelines formulated on the advice of recognized experts in medicine and epidemiology—masks, social distancing and careful hygiene. His position on vaccination against Covid is the same. “It is clear as daylight,” he said in a shiur, “that in halachah we rely on the scientific and medical data available in each day and age. If not, we would have to tear out 50 percent of the Shulchan Aruch.” Rav Weiss’s halachic advice to all is to take the vaccine, although he stops just short of stating that it is halachically obligatory. He elucidates this conclusion in a shiur on YouTube.

Alongside the halachic message, Rav Weiss has decried the cavalier attitude some have adopted toward the guidelines as a lack of compassion toward the vulnerable—a symptom of disunity not conducive to Heavenly mercy. “Look at the elderly rosh yeshivah, at your Zeide and your Bubbe,” he said. “Which of them are you willing to lose?”

The final ingredient in Rav Asher Weiss’s anti-Covid formula is simchah. Throughout the pandemic and the difficult lockdown conditions, Rav Weiss has reminded people “to be happy, to be mechazek one another—and b’siyata d’Shmaya, we’ll be fine.”

Yocheved Lavon is a writer, editor and Hebrew-to-English translator based in Jerusalem.

 

Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz
By Barbara Bensoussan

When Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz, rav of Congregation Shaare Tefillah in Teaneck, New Jersey, and then-president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC), called a meeting after Purim 2020 to discuss Covid, he had no idea how far it would take him. As his colleague and RCBC successor Rabbi Zev Goldberg, rav of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, put it: “There are no semichah classes entitled ‘How to Manage a Global Pandemic.’”

“The first cases of Covid in Riverdale had just become news that March, and the day before Purim a few cases were diagnosed at the Frisch School,” Rabbi Schiowitz says. “We were the first hot spot after Riverdale, so we’d begun talking to the Board of Health. A few schools had closed down, but no one had any idea how long that would last.”

The RCBC met the day after Purim, inviting in all the local rabbis, school principals, presidents of shuls and schools, and “any doctor we felt had some expertise,” he says. “There were 100 people in the room—with no masks!”

At that point, he thought perhaps shuls would opt to eliminate kiddushim and close youth groups. He never imagined anyone would shut down regular tefillot! But the meeting had fortunately attracted excellent doctors, including an expert in infectious diseases. The doctors spent an hour sharing their perspectives, and when they finished, it seemed clear that a complete shutdown was necessary.

At that point, no one else was calling for shutdowns. But the doctors pointed out that the Department of Health’s statistics underestimated the gravity of the situation, since they hadn’t counted the number of people going to emergency rooms. They said it didn’t make sense to close shuls and schools without also putting the brakes on restaurants, semachot, even levayot. Like it or not, it was a necessary evil. “We are a community that takes science and medical data seriously,” Rabbi Goldberg asserts.

When the meeting ended at midnight, Rabbi Schiowitz was given the onerous task of going home to pen a letter to the community (with some assistance from other rabbis), explaining the new regulations. He stayed up the better part of the night, and by morning the missive was sent out, well in advance of every other Jewish community in the US, and in advance of the government restrictions that quickly followed.

“The news outlets immediately came calling!” he says. “At the same time, other communities began reacting, either adopting our regulations or inquiring about them.” Thankfully, there was little backlash from his own community; most people were grateful for the RCBC’s prudence. A few restaurants objected to the loss of business, but several days later, the state of New Jersey, too, ordered them closed. “There’s no question that Rabbi Schiowitz’s foresight saved lives,” said a resident of Bergen County.

Following the first letter, Rabbi Schiowitz and the RCBC continued to send carefully crafted letters to the community, apprising them of updates or changes in policy. As the Department of Health began issuing guidelines, those newsletters largely followed state directives and/or OU directives. For example, the RCBC allowed restaurants to open when the state allowed it. But when indoor prayer was permitted, the RCBC nevertheless advised waiting an additional two weeks to make sure there would be no spike in cases.

Rabbi Schiowitz says the biggest challenge was keeping the community unified while making decisions as to when to allow different practices for different places. Over time, as views changed vis-à-vis how to handle the pandemic, the RCBC’s job was to hear everyone out in a balanced manner. “The whole process definitely raised the profile of the RCBC, because we don’t usually tell people how to behave,” he says. Rabbi Goldberg adds that Rabbi Schiowitz’s sensitive, level-headed, teamwork-oriented approach helped the RCBC navigate potentially stormy waters on an even keel.

Rabbi Schiowitz himself lost an uncle to Covid, but he and his immediate family have thankfully been spared infection. He recently ceded his RCBC position to Rabbi Goldberg, and he admits it’s a bit of a relief. “I hope the intensity is behind us,” he says. “But I saw that we could be unified. We should always be that way.”

 

Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt
By Sandy Eller

With his dual titles, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt was uniquely qualified to emerge as the voice of reason during a period in time when the world was turned upside down.

While modern medicine typically relies on existing data and proven protocols to address situations as they arise, the emergence of a novel coronavirus left experts totally in the dark. Finding a path forward through the outbreak, pinpointing effective ways to treat patients and understanding how to deal with everyday life were seemingly impossible tasks in a situation that was unprecedented for just about everyone.

“The pandemic was a brand-new illness and the information was constantly changing,” recalls Dr. Glatt, professor and chair of medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau. “It was clear we had to do what the Torah tells us, which is to ask the medical experts and do what they say to do at that time, but people became very frustrated because the opinions kept on changing, something which wasn’t unexpected given the circumstances.”

Dr. Glatt, who also serves as assistant rabbi at the Young Israel of Woodmere, estimated that he spoke with hundreds of community rabbanim as the outbreak worsened and consulted with gedolim on many an occasion as complex situations arose.

“The unbelievable number of medical, halachic and combined she’eilot that came up was just mind-boggling,” says Dr. Glatt. “So many people—lay leadership, rabbanim, physicians and gedolim—stepped up to the plate to help Klal Yisrael through this eit tzarah.”

With misinformation everywhere, inexpert opinions swirling on social media and calls for advice skyrocketing, Dr. Glatt agreed to a request from community members and local rabbanim to provide regular updates. His weekly Motzaei Shabbat Zoom conferences on the latest accurate information regarding Covid drew 1,000 people weekly and were seen by an even larger audience as they made their way onto YouTube, with written bulletins spreading the word even farther.

Despite the devastating loss of life, there were moments even in the darkest days of the pandemic when rays of light shone through. While a joint statement from Agudath Israel of America, Igud HaRabbanim, Lakewood Vaad, the National Council of Young Israel, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America closed shuls from coast to coast, it was hard not to appreciate the display of achdut that spanned the communal spectrum.

“It was heartwarming to know that we were alone, but not alone,” recalls Dr. Glatt. “In many ways it was so beautiful, and I was sure that Mashiach was coming.”

While the loss of life was devastating, Dr. Glatt believes that those who reacted responsibly as solid information emerged about Covid typically fared well.

“There was far less death and suffering among people who followed the guidelines and were machmir on pikuach nefashot, and shuls that had 100 percent adherence had no outbreaks,” says Dr. Glatt.

Still, even as the months went by, new challenges arose as Covid fatigue set in and masks and social distancing fell by the wayside. Dr. Glatt is a strong believer in catering to the highest common denominator when it comes to pandemic safety, especially for a community that is renowned for its capacity for chesed.

“When family members who have different kashrut standards want to get together, they pick a level of kashrut that works for everyone,” says Dr. Glatt. “You can agree or disagree about wearing a mask, but do a chesed for another Yid. If wearing masks kept yeshivot and shuls open, then what’s the big deal about wearing masks?”

 

More in this Section:

The Pandemic Classroom

Of Rabbis and Rebbetzins

Women Who Took Charge

From the Medical Trenches

The Final Chesed

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This article was featured in the Summer 2021 issue of Jewish Action.
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