Passover in Israel during Conovirus has been a unique experience. Unfortunately, thousands of individuals were alone for Seder. Many of them were single young people, and others were from the elder population like my in-laws who could not join family because it was dangerous to visit their children and grandchildren who might be carriers. In order to come together despite the isolation at 8:30 pm on the Seder night word spread (through what’s app groups, how else?) that everyone would gather outside on their balconies to sing Mah Nishtanah together. It was a powerful moment of solidarity in a time a separation. White City Shabbat (our Tel Aviv outreach organization) packaged over 1000 ‘Seder in a Box’ orders, which were sent out to those who were unable to join family members for the Seder. This modern-day scenario has been compared to the Passover of thousands of years ago, when in Egypt Jews were told not to leave their houses to avoid being struck by tenth plague.
Prayer services took on a new twist this year as well, with the rise of the ‘mirpeset’ (balcony) minyan. New neighborhood what’s app groups formed to announce prayer times, and congregations grouped by geographical location rather than by yarmulke color, size of hat, or ideology, which is the norm in our neighborhood with over sixty synagogues. In our subdivision alone six new synagogues have sprung up to accommodate Ashkenazi, sefardi, national religious, yeshivish and of course Chabad. On Shabbat, there was a particularly poignant moment after services when a brit mila was celebrated with the newest member of the tribe on our street. It took place on the balcony so everyone could celebrate, with mohel and family all properly attired in face masks and plastic gloves.
Before Passover, the Israeli government mandated that its citizens wear masks when leaving the home, which added an additional level of social distancing to the Hol Hamoed outing. All holiday outings were limited to 100 meters from the home this year. But in Israel that can bring about unexpected discoveries; within 100 meters of our home there is a 2500-year-old archeological site, a field of flowers and countless interesting construction sites, with the hills of Jerusalem being built up right before our eyes. An additional holiday highlight is the flatbed trucks and vans that cruise through town with live bands, DJ’s and light shows playing music to cheer people up.
Part of the reason Israel has been able to keep its numbers of people infected with Coronavirus so low is because the population is accustomed to the government handling crises and giving direction at such a time. No one is fazed when the army is deployed on the streets and roads throughout the country. The government restricted all traffic over the holiday, causing this to be the first Passover in a long time when all Israelis were observing the holiday by not traveling. People are not fazed when the government uses its security surveillance softwear for non-security uses. Any person who is discovered to be infected with the virus is tracked a week back, and those whose paths they crossed (also tracked by cell phone) are instructed to self-qurantine. By and large people cooperated without complaining that their civil liberties are being trampled because we all know this is how everyone will stay safe. To date, we have had three people in our family in quarantine, myself, our son, and my father-in-law. Israel also feels no compunction in closing and quarantining entire cities, towns, and which have a high rate of infection.
Israelis are relieved and proud to be on the forefront of aggressively fighting the Coronavirus. This has involved off closing different segments of the country, tracking those exposed, quarantining, controlling its borders, and even setting up quarantine hotels. Indeed, Israel has been rated the safest country during Covid-19 as reported in Forbes International. The medical establishment is also ahead of the curve using remote monitors and audio to keep personnel out of the Coronavirus wards as much as they can. This is possible because the nurses call upon patients that are not as sick to give support to those who are more ill in the ward. In a country where everybody is family, everyone feels like they are in this together and are looking to help others. Another first has been that Israeli hospitals are allowing next of kin to come to the side of those who are dying, (fully suited up and protected of course) a practice which most other countries have not allowed. The hospitals viewed this as a basic humane response to tragic circumstances. Another reflection of the caring approach are 30,000 volunteers mobilized by just one of many organizations bringing food and help to the elderly, the infirm and those in need.
Israel has also been attempting to help its neighbors, providing medical supplies and training to the Palestinian territories and even to doctors in the Gaza strip. In a rare moment of praise, the UN has recognized Israel’s ‘excellent’ cooperation with the PA and even with self-declared enemy Hamas in fighting Coronavirus. Unfortunately the World Health Organization’s Palestinian branch did not lose an opportunity to condemn Israel, accusing Israel of obstructing Palestinians’ access to vital medicine.
On the home front, there has been an increased sense of solidarity with Israeli Arabs. As Yossi Klein Halevi, incisive commentator of Israelis society has noted this is the first existential threat to Israel that has not been about Israel being a Jewish state. The virus is a national civic crisis which fortunately has brought an increased sense of civic responsibility. This sense of unity with the Israeli Arab population is also heightened because 17 percent of Israel’s physicians, 24 percent of its nurses, and 47 percent of its pharmacists are Arabs.
Clearly, Israel cannot be compared to many other countries. Because it is a very small country, about the size of New Jersey, with only eight million citizens, it is therefore easier to contain. In addition, it has a unique culture where the army is not viewed as an external government agency, but as your neighbor or neighbor’s child who is looking out for the good of everyone when they are asking you questions at a roadblock. However, it is still extraordinary that the number of deaths has just recently topped the one hundred mark. Perhaps this is a reflection of the unique ability to balance societal restrictions with humane Jewish values, all the while mobilizing technology and the Israeli innovative spirit. This has allowed Israel to confront what has been the latest challenge of many trials in Israel’s brief history as a modern state.