The Young Israel of New Rochelle (YINR) seemed to be a typical suburban Modern Orthodox congregation when I spent Shabbat a few times there twenty years ago. The shul, a modest wooden building, located across North Avenue from Wykagyl Country Club, had a warm feeling. The congregants were welcoming.
Since then the congregation has greatly expanded, moving in 2008 into an impressive, two-story glass-and-brick-façade building down the block.
The congregation, it turns out, is anything but typical.
YINR, with 350 member families, the only Orthodox shul in the community, was at the epicenter of the coronavirus’ spread into New York State earlier this year, when a member of the congregation was diagnosed with the disease, along with other members of his family, as well as a kindhearted neighbor who drove him to the hospital. With the inter-connectedness of the frum community, the virus spread. “It ripped through our community . . . went through the shul very quickly,” says Mark Semer, immediate past president of the shul. New Rochelle subsequently became the first city in New York with a large community placed under quarantine.
And the New Rochelle frum community became the first such community to demonstrate and experience a wave of chesed while in quarantine. The shul building was quickly closed, as Rabbi Reuven Fink, the longtime mora d’atra, realized the danger posed by social contact.
The Young Israel epitomized a pandemic of kindness. Members of the shul both gave and received. Small, individual acts of kindness, and larger, community-wide ones, spanned the Orthodox community beginning with outreach to homebound Jews in New Rochelle, and rapidly expanding online, often via social media and in-person. “While our shul building was closed, it was our top priority to keep the community open,” said Semer.
Because the community is chesed-oriented and had the infrastructure in place, within a day or two, the shul set up a buddy system for elderly members and had volunteers calling once a day to check in on their “buddy.” “The chesed machine was up in motion fairly quickly,” said Semer. When Ellie Goldenberg, head of the shul’s Women’s League, put out a call for volunteers who were not quarantined willing to deliver meals to the elderly, “within three minutes, we had twenty-one volunteers,” she says.
“I’m a rabbi with the coronavirus whose congregation is quarantined. It’s bringing out the best in us,” Rabbi Reuven Fink wrote in a JTA essay in March that described his new reality and quickly went viral.
The rabbi, who was quarantined along with 1,000 other members of the community, described some of the chesed his congregants received immediately and over several weeks, from close friends and total strangers.
There were the twenty pairs of Chabad yeshivah students walking door-to-door in New Rochelle on Purim, reading the megillah in people’s backyards to those quarantined inside. “They rescued Purim for us,” said Semer.
Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fairlawn, New Jersey had mishloach manot delivered to every child who’s a member of the Young Israel.
And Suburban Torah Center in Livingston, New Jersey sent Shabbat care packages for each child replete with candies and other goodies.
As the virus spread into other corners of the Jewish world, the chesed spread as well. Countless individual Jews brought home-made meals, and did the shopping and other errands for self-isolated people, especially for the elderly homebound.
When shuls shut down the world over, some in Israel who were still able to daven with a minyan on porches or in large backyards—strictly adhering to the safety regulations from the Ministry of Health and posekim—sent out offers. They wanted to recite Kaddish for those unable to get to a minyan. “I have already done so for fifteen yahrtzeits and twenty-nine different aveilim [mourners],” wrote one man. “This mitzvah opportunity is something I consider an honor and a privilege and one-hundred percent free of charge,” he wrote.
The chesed that began in New Rochelle was spreading—pandemic-like. Several Jewish organizations and entertainers took part in online, livestreamed Zoom classes, concerts, magic shows and other activities; Masbia, which operates three free kosher soup kitchens in New York City, prepared boxes with two weeks’ worth of food, which it distributed on a nonsectarian basis; Evergreen, a supermarket in Monsey, New York, offered free meals to volunteer Hatzalah members who were working long hours. Even an airline joined in—El Al arranged unscheduled rescue flights to Peru, India, Australia and Costa Rica to bring back stranded Israelis.
And in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, Rabbi Benjamin Joseph Samuels came up with the idea of a kosher l’Pesach “Seder in a Box.” For folks who would celebrate Pesach by themselves, or could not leave home to do yom tov shopping, he and a group of volunteers put together a box of everything needed for a complete Seder—“a full meal for two for one Seder, including grape juice, matzah and Seder plate.”
The food, prepared “per Covid-19 food safety standards,” could be picked up at “a drive through pick up that complies with hygienic and social distancing standards.” For people low on funds, no charge.
The rabbi was soon flooded with offers to help. “One of my funders volunteered to underwrite the project.”
Said Rabbi Samuels, “Not all things viral are bad.”
Steve Lipman is a staff writer at the Jewish Week in New York and a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.