It was the Friday afternoon before the start of the week-long Sukkot holiday celebrating the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, and Orthodox men were shopping at a roadside stand near Lakewood’s downtown for citron fruits, palm fronds, and leafy branches of myrtle and willow trees that make up the “etrog and lulav” sets used in a sacred ritual.
In addition to their black suits and skull caps, some of the men wore breathing masks as they brushed shoulders and rubbed elbows, browsing around tables stocked with the four species of plants. Some did not wear masks.
Half a dozen adolescent boys were working at the stand, attending closely to the men. The boys were already off from school at their Orthodox yeshivas in advance of the holiday, which would begin at sunset. None of them wore masks, though that didn’t bother middle-aged shopper Maurice Schwartz, who wasn’t wearing one either.
“I think most of the kids developed antibodies already,” said Schwartz, whose own children attend Yeshiva K’Tana, a K-12 school on Second Street with about 800 students.
Schwartz said he trusts the school’s rabbi and staff to take proper precautions against the virus, though he’s also verified some of them.
“They check the temperature as soon as they arrive at school,” Schwartz said. “I’ve gone there and seen the thermometer in front.”
At one point the boys crowded around a masked stranger, eager to explain the ritual shaking of the etrog and lulav sets, performed inside a temporary hut known as a sukkah. Any pretense at social distancing was forgotten in their youthful zeal to share what they knew of the holiday.
Their enthusiasm was contagious.
But the spotty use of masks and utter lack of social distancing at the Sukkot stand was notable amid the soaring level of coronavirus cases in Ocean County that officials say began to emerge in mid-September, centered around Lakewood’s Orthodox community.
The scene was especially unnerving after Thursday’s warning by Gov. Phil Murphy that he is anticipating a “second wave” of the coronavirus, led by Ocean County, after he announced the highest one-day total of new cases — 1,301 new cases — since May 29. Ocean County accounted for a fifth of the new cases, with 285, and 206 of those coming from Lakewood alone.
Ocean County’s rate of infection, at 24.3 cases per 100,000 residents as of Oct. 6, was triple the statewide average this week. And Lakewood’s 4,878 confirmed cases to date make up 33.7% of the county’s total caseload since the pandemic began, despite the township’s accounting for just 17.4% of Ocean’s total population.
Health officials, religious leaders and others have noted that the start of the surge in early to mid September has roughly coincided with the Jewish high holy days: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and celebration of Adam and Eve’s creation, on Sept. 18-20; followed by Yom Kippur, Judaism’s day of atonement, Sept. 27-28.
Sukkot, which ended at sundown this Friday, is part of he broader Jewish holiday season, followed by this weekend’s two days of celebrating known as Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah. Hanukkah, the 8-day festival of lights, runs from Dec. 10-18 this year.
Similar coronavirus spikes have occurred in Orthodox communities in New York City and state, prompting Gov. Andrew Cuomo to announce restrictions that, depending on the severity of the outbreak in a given neighborhood, include closing schools and businesses and limiting the size of religious gatherings to as few as 10 people.
“I think what we’re seeing here in Ocean County kind of mirrors everything you’re seeing in New York and Brooklyn, and Rockland County,” said Ocean County Public Health Coordinator Daniel E. Regenye.
One difference is that Cuomo’s announcement on Tuesday sparked a demonstration in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood. But while Gov. Phil Murphy has been vocal in calling on the Orthodox community to abide by anti-coronavirus rules, he has not announced a crackdown similar to Cuomo’s, and there have been no public demonstrations among the Orthodox in New Jersey.
Even before the holy days drew people together in synagogues and under the shade of sukkahs, another period began that bound thousands of Orthodox families together around central institutions in Lakewood: the start of the school year, when 40,000 children began attending in-person classes at the township’s 135 private yeshivas.
Depending how the situation progressed, Murphy said last week he would not rule out ordering Lakewood’s 6,500 mostly Black and Latinx public school students to got back to remote learning, after the district began classes in person this year. A Murphy spokesperson, Christine Lee, said this week that the same goes for Lakewood’s private yeshivas.
Two of them, Bnos Esther Malka and Bnos Devorah, both girls’ elementary schools, did halt in-person classes before the Sukkot holiday.
Regenye said the virus could be spreading at the yeshivas.
“It’s a possibility,” he said. Then again, he added, “anything is a possibility.”
It would be difficult to conclude just what venues were spreading the virus, Regenye said, because the Orthodox community is like any other, with members going about their lives in multiple places, interacting with various people, whether houses of worship, schools, businesses, restaurants or retail stores.
Regnye said the state health department had contracted with test maker Vault Health to specifically target local yeshivas with the company’s non-intrusive saliva test.
As fast as the virus may be spreading, Regenye said he was encouraged by “strong messaging” being disseminated throughout the Orthodox community by health officials, religious and civic leaders, and local healthcare providers, emphasizing social distancing, mask wearing and testing.
And he said the message is sinking in. He cited one weeklong stretch, from Sept 23-30, when 3,500 tests were administered in Lakewood. That included close to 1,000 tests given on a single day, Sept. 29, mainly to members of the Orthodox community by the Center for Health Education, Medicine and Dentistry, or CHEMED, a primary care facility with a testing station set up in its Harrison Avenue parking lot.
Referring to long lines for testing Wednesday at FirstEnergy Park, home of the Lakewood Blue Claws minor league baseball team, he said, “When I was at the Blue Claws’ yesterday, I probably saw about fifty to seventy-five individuals, and they were all Orthodox.”
Regenye said some demographic patterns had emerged in terms of who was testing positive for the virus. One is that males outnumber females by a 60-40 ratio, while the most common age group was people 30-40, followed by 20-30.
Rabbi Avi Schnall, New Jersey director of Agudath Israel of America, a group that advocates for the Orthodox community, rejected the notion that the yeshivas were responsible for the recent surge.
Rather, Schnall insisted that just the opposite was true. Placing children in the supervised, contained environment of their school — where he insisted that social distancing, masks and other anti-coronavirus measures are in place — is safer than keeping them away.
“You have 40,000 not in school?” Schnall said. “They’re riding their bikes. They’re going to neighbors. They’re going to cousins. They’re going to friends. They’re going to the store. They’re coming back home, as you can imagine. So, not having children (in school), if anything, is a lot less safe.”
“Bringing children to school,” he said, “they’re monitored, there’s a nurse that can observe them, their temperatures are being checked, they’re being checked for symptoms, there’s testing going on, so we can actually see what’s going on in a much more managed system.”
Like the yeshivas, Lakewood’s public schools opened for full-time, in-person classes this fall, the rationale being that many students lack computers or internet access, and that many parents have jobs that don’t allow them to work remotely and therefor they could not supervise their children’s school work or home lives.
But Lakewood’s public school teachers union, the Lakewood Education Association, has opposed the district’s in-person opening, and the union’s president and spokesperson have been outspoken critics of the decision in the media and other forums. They insist that the district’s measures to combat the coronavirus have been inadequate, ineffective or non-existent, and sometimes provided photographs to back up their claims.
Whether that’s so, the number of reported coronavirus cases coming out of the public district total just 17 since the start of the year, a relatively small number in light of the 206 new cases for the township reported on Thursday alone.
Unlike the public schools, the yeshivas do not have unions allowing teachers to express their concerns publicly without fear of retribution. And in critical times like these, that cannot be good for students, their families or the broader population, said the union’s spokeswoman, Dawn Hiltner.
“It’s not just a matter of keeping our members safe or the students, it’s the community at large,” Hiltner said. “When you’re in a school that doesn’t have a union, or doesn’t have a majority representative, for example a private school or a yeshiva, those teachers are not on equal footing with the administration. A lot of times they may feel they don’t have the voice to speak out, whether it’s on safety issues, educational issues, etc.”
Several Orthodox parents interviewed in Lakewood last Friday said they were confident that their children were safe from the coronavirus in their yeshivas. If they weren’t, more than one parent said, they would keep their children at home.
Moshe Lankry did just that, though he said it wasn’t because he lacked confidence in the yeshiva’s leaders.
Lankry, 55, who owns a kosher pizzeria in town, said he pulled his son out of school for the week leading up to Sukkot figuring it the two straight weeks off would amount to an incubation period when, he hoped, the surge might begin to wane.
“I haven’t sent my kid for a week to school,” Lankry said just a couple of hours before sundown, and the start of the holiday. “Next ten days, everybody’ll be home.”
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Steve Strunsky may be reached at [email protected].