How LA’s Orthodox Jews averted the worst of the pandemic

From the Forward, May 4, 2020:

According to Yossi Manela, director of Chevra Kadisha Mortuary, only three Orthodox Jews with Covid-19 on their death certificate — all men, average age 75 years old — had passed through his funeral home. He estimated the mortuary sees about 80 percent of LA’s deceased Orthodox Jews.

Moshe Sarto, who runs the local Orthodox community news site and daily e-newsletter Hillygram, estimated that he had sent fewer than ten obituary notices over the past two months…

The decisions by LA’s Orthodox leaders to close their doors and proscribe religious gatherings did not occur in perfect unison, and some rabbis said they regretted not doing it sooner. An extra week of regular Shabbat services may be the reason why one Orthodox neighborhood seems to have been hit harder than the others…

The key moments in the trajectory of the pandemic here date back to the Shabbat of February 29, when a Pico-Robertson resident attended services at Congregation Kehilas Yaakov in the La Brea area. The following week, two congregants who had been sitting near him began exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms.

To Rabbi Gershon Bess, who leads Kollel Los Angeles in addition to Kehilas Yaakov, the coronavirus was still “a Chinese story” in early March, a few days before a deluge of Covid-19 cases hit New Rochelle, New York.

“At that point, none of us realized how bad it was,” Rabbi Bess said.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Bess advised his congregation in an email that anyone who had come in close contact with the visitor to self-quarantine. The visitor eventually tested positive for Covid-19.

Altogether, six men in shul that day contracted the illness — one of whom required several weeks on a ventilator. But all of them survived…

In the Hancock Park-La Brea area, whose Orthodox population is comparable to Pico Robertson’s, only Kehillat Yavneh shut down that Shabbat, the rest staying open until the following Shabbat.

“It appears that caused a toll on them,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, one of the large synagogues in Pico-Robertson area that closed March 14. “A number of people got very sick. Our side of town was more spared, I think.”

Simcha Mandelbaum, director of public relations for Hatzolah Los Angeles, said the majority of Hatzolah’s coronavirus-related calls had come from the Fairfax-La Brea area, which was also where the highest concentration of Covid-19 illnesses was in LA County at one point. Those calls surged in the weeks after Purim and did not drop until after Passover.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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