As Sukkot starts in the United States, the holiday will look and feel very different this year due to the uptick in cases of COVID-19 in many parts of the country, particularly in the Great Plains states and the South, and comes amid the news that U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump have been diagnosed with the coronavirus. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) also confirmed a positive test on Friday.

“I hope he has a full recovery and that he has no symptoms or mild symptoms,” said Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, director of New York government relations at Agudath Israel of America. “Putting aside the election, he is still the president of the United States, and this probably the biggest health crisis since President [Ronald] Reagan was shot some 40 years ago. We just have to wish him well, and it’s a sign that we have to vigilant in wearing masks, social distancing and hand hygiene. That’s the most important thing.”

Across the country, more than 7.2 million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 with more than 208,000 people having died due to complications from the virus as of Friday afternoon. Currently, 27 states are reporting an uptick in corona cases.

As it did at the beginning of the pandemic, the increase in cases is hitting Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods particularly hard, especially in New York City and Lakewood, N.J. As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday in advance of a meeting with community leaders, “If you look at those clusters and you look at those ZIP codes, you will see there’s an overlap with large Orthodox Jewish communities. That is a fact. … This is a public-health concern for their community. It’s also a public-health concern for surrounding communities.”

Jewish leaders say they have been unfairly targeted—they point to the fact that not all the ZIP codes are overwhelmingly Orthodox—and are doing their best to stop the spread and get the word out, especially with the threat of closure looming large in New York.

Agudath Israel of America coordinated a mask distribution in the heavily Orthodox neighborhood of Boro Park in Brooklyn, N.Y. According to Silber, the 400,000 masks, which were donated by a community member and done with the help of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council, were gone within two hours.

“It was absolutely an overwhelming turnout,” he said. “The word has gotten out that people need to be vigilant and serious; when I was out on the street, almost everyone I saw was wearing a mask.”

“People do care and are vigilant,” he continued. “I will say that one point, some complacency set in. The community had been hit very hard in March and April, and, thankfully, when it came to June, July and August, it was so quiet it was almost dormant. There was a false sense that a herd immunity had set in. The feeling was the worst was over.”

New York Police Department and Hatzolah of Boro Park distribute masks to the local Jewish community. Credit: NYPD via Twitter.

Other community members agree. They also point to a lack of clear guidance from government leaders. Some even noted that local police officers have been seen not wearing masks.

“Public-health officials have not paid proper attention and met with community leaders; that is a fact, and it is regrettable. They have not put in the right effort to deal with the community,” said Yosef Rapaport, a media consultant from Borough Park. “They have not taken into account the special consideration of the community, which is self-contained with huge integration on a daily basis with people going to the same synagogues, schools and the same people in the stores.”

‘Things won’t be the same this year’

Rabbi Aaron Glatt, associate rabbi at the Young Israel of Woodmere on Long Island, N.Y., and chief of infectious disease in Mount Sinai South Nassau, also on Long Island, has been providing guidance as to how the Orthodox community can approach the holidays.

Those guidelines have helped rabbis nationwide make critical decisions on how to structure services, handle communal gatherings and more. Earlier this week, he released guidance for Sukkot, which often finds many Orthodox people participating in large get-togethers, whether with family and friends, or with their congregations and rabbis.

Noting that while eating in the sukkah over Sukkot is traditionally done “outdoors,” Glatt noted that “sukkahs are enclosed much more than a typical outdoor setting, and I would be concerned with mixing unless there was adequate separation (at least 6 feet if not more) between family units.”

Other guidance suggests that those who do not have access to their own sukkah make sure they stagger their meal time so they are not in the sukkah with others.

The Council of Torah Sages, which provides guidance for Agudath Israel, has sent a letter to rabbis advising that gatherings be limited in scope this year, and that strong precautions need to be taken for Simchat Torah—a time when Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and danced around the synagogue, usually with large Jewish crowds, including children, in tow.

The Orthodox Union also issued strong guidance to synagogues earlier this week, saying “this special day is typically celebrated by spirited dancing with the Torah, which is something that seems impossible to replicate this year while maintaining proper safeguards. … Even outdoors, dancing in circles, we are continuously walking in the clouds of droplets generated by the vigorous singing and dancing of others. Sadly, there seems to be no way in which this can be safely accomplished.”

For many families, one especially poignant highlight of Simchat Torah is “Kol HaNearim,” literally the “voice of the children,” when little ones in the congregation gather on the bimah, under a chuppah or “canopy,” while the Torah is read.

Many congregations will be forgoing that tradition this year.

“Things won’t be the same this year,” said Silber. “People need to be careful and stay vigilant. We don’t want to go back to having our yeshivahs closed, our shuls closed, our businesses closed. We’ve learned how to navigate this, but if we are not careful, there is a real danger that things will shut down.”

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