(March 24, 2020 / JNS) As more and more cases of confirmed COVID-19 are reported in New York, our country and the world at large, I find myself anxious and fearful, much like many of my friends and colleagues. I am especially worried for the health and safety of my friends and family, specifically those who are elderly and most susceptible to a fatal case of the disease. I am also worried for our nation and society. It seems that each day we are confronted with humanity’s worst traits: people stockpiling supplies they won’t need, and those selfishly turning a blind eye to the situation, while putting others at risk.
But we are better than this. A dominant trait of humanity is the urge to form community and to care for one another. While we cannot assemble physically as communities right now, our inherent drive for community is still saving lives.
I was raised in New Rochelle, N.Y., spending the bulk of my childhood years there. Upon hearing that the city was the epicenter of a COVID-19 outbreak, my stomach dropped. After all, I still have friends and family there. The fact that the outbreak started at Young Israel of New Rochelle—the synagogue I attended through my childhood and where I celebrated my bar mitzvah—made it all hit even closer to home for me.
I am incredibly proud of how my home community has reacted to this unthinkable calamity. Despite being placed under quarantine and surrounded by New York National Guardsmen—two situations that could easily cause panic—residents rose to the occasion.
Almost immediately, community members began to organize food deliveries to those being quarantined; they began to connect even more closely (though not physically) to make sure everyone had necessary supplies. These kindnesses have come from businesses that have gone out of their way to remove roadblocks to service and from individuals bringing meals to neighbors. A group of anonymous donors even had meals delivered from the local kosher Chinese restaurant to every household that is a member of Young Israel of New Rochelle. They did this both to help their fellow congregants and to support a local business that, like many businesses both large and small, is seeing a drastic decrease in commerce due to this pandemic.
New Rochelle was the first city in New York State to see the effects of a novel coronavirus outbreak, and its citizens responded commendably. I hope New Rochelle can serve as a model to other communities. As this disease spreads more and more each day, we must amplify our efforts to help our neighbors.
Of course, these acts of charity and lovingkindness are only enhanced due to the professional and coordinated response of the community’s leaders in collaboration with the city’s Department of Health, which has worked admirably to keep people informed. Mayor Noam Bramson should be commended for his proactive approach and for keeping channels of communication open; and leaders of the community within the city, like Young Israel of New Rochelle’s Rabbi Reuven Fink, who sprang into action immediately to ensure that his congregants were receiving care, even while having tested positive for COVID-19 himself.
From Day No. 1, when it was first learned that a community member had inadvertently brought COVID-19 to Young Israel of New Rochelle, the rabbi and the synagogue’s lay leaders responded quickly, following advice from local experts. Rabbi Fink has been in near-constant outreach with the community—with those who are sick and those who are not. He rapidly orchestrated online portals where people could both seek and offer assistance, and he mobilized others to action.
Young Israel, for instance, brought in a group of doctors to counsel community members virtually about COVID-19, its symptoms, its treatment and precautionary measures. Going even further, the synagogue sponsored a Zoom session available to anyone, even those not in the community, in which doctors who specialize in infectious diseases answered questions. In another act of community care, people around the state have been organizing blood and platelet drives to help those who are ill, which is vital at this time. Reserves are running low, and patients—not only with coronavirus, but with many types of illness or injury—need these lifesaving donations.
But physical concerns are only part of the struggle. While it’s vital that everyone remain safe and healthy, there are mental and spiritual elements to this struggle as well. In quarantine, many people feel cut off from the world. Isolation can have alarming impacts on mental health. Despite New Rochelle being in lockdown, people are still connecting. While residents may be isolating physically, they are not isolating emotionally. Through modern technology, people can stay connected so easily without having to leave their home.
As for spiritually, Young Israel has had that covered, too. Since this pandemic’s outbreak, there have been online lessons and study groups for synagogue members, giving them a sense of routine and normalcy. Many congregants were concerned about not being able to attend services to hear Torah reading. For Purim, Young Israel livestreamed the Megillah reading.
A lot of media attention has been focused on numbers: mainly, the opening of the containment zone and the spread of the coronavirus through the community. But there is so much more to this developing story. There is compassion, lifesaving help and the tight-knit nature of community. Coming from New Rochelle, I know that the populace is modest and prefers to stay out of the limelight; however, now they have been thrust into it. I urge people outside New Rochelle to refrain from viewing the community or its members through the lens of this pandemic our nation is grappling with, but instead to focus on the amazingly generous and benevolent people there.
It is impossible to tally the countless acts of generosity in this time of crisis. Help is coming from all corners and to all people. While I hold out hope that this pandemic will end soon, in the meantime, I wish that every community can be like New Rochelle: loving, supportive and kind to one another. By replicating this model in communities nationwide, I am confident that we can get ahead of this curve.
Josh Nass is a public-relations professional specializing in media relations, crisis communications and reputation management.
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