SERIES, PART II: Assisting China in the Early Days of the Coronavirus

As Jewish communities across China prepared for severely pared-down Shabbat attendance amid an environment of fear and foreboding in and outside of China about the spreading virus that has been declared a global public-health emergency, a mother and daughter from the Chabad community of Palo Alto, Calif., remained quarantined on a military base in Southern California after a harrowing 48-hour journey to safety from the epicenter of the spiraling coronavirus.

“We have witnessed the emergence of a previously unknown pathogen which has escalated into an unprecedented outbreak,” Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization declared at a Jan. 20 news conference, citing fear that the virus will spread worldwide, particularly to countries with weak health systems. The announcement was followed later in the day by the U.S. State Department, elevating its travel advisory to a “do not travel” to China warning.

“The Chinese are taking strong and assertive measures to fight this,” Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon, head emissary to China, told on Friday, “but it is a very, very scary situation on many fronts.”

From their base in China’s semi-autonomous district of Hong Kong, Avtzon and his wife, Goldie, have been in constant contact with the 15 Chabad-Lubavitch emissary couples in China who are doing their best to serve their communities while taking their own safety precautions. With much of the country on travel lockdown, facing dwindling food supplies and being advised to remain at home unless absolutely necessary to venture out, most of the Jewish community will not be attending Shabbat services and meals as usual, said Avtzon, based on reports from rabbis throughout China.

“People will not come at all, as they usually do, ” said Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, Chabad-Lubavitch lead emissary in the capital city of Beijing with his wife, Dini. “I suspect we will have no more than a minyan [public prayer quorum of men needed for full services].”

“In the meantime,” he added, “we will be here for anyone who needs us, regardless of what it is—whether for emotional support, kosher food or advice.”

He said that his wife and children—with his wife enrolled to attend the annual women emissary Chabad convention in New York in mid-February—will depart on Sunday, ahead of schedule for the event to be out of harm’s way. “But I will remain—a fact that is providing a source of comfort to the community.”

Quarantined in California

Dini Freundlich lights Shabbat candles in Beijing.
Dini Freundlich lights Shabbat candles in Beijing.

Another Jewish woman and her daughter whisked out of China on a specially arranged flight on Wednesday morning after traveling in early January to visit her family in the virus’s originating city, Wuhan, will be spending Shabbat quarantined on a military base in Riverside, Calif.

The woman and her 16-year-old daughter boarded the flight on a converted freight carrier surrounded by U.S. embassy and consulate officials, and fellow civilians, at 4:20 a.m. in Wuhan and landed at the March Reserve Air Base 48 hours later, after a stop in Anchorage, Alaska.

“I cannot leave because of the quarantine, so it looks like I don’t have a choice and will be staying here for Shabbat,” the woman told from her room in a hotel-like facility on the Air Force reserve base late Thursday night.

She said all of the passengers were tested and monitored before boarding the flight, again at the stopover in Anchorage and were given a final test once in the United States. The group was told it would take three days for health officials to learn the results and determine the timing of their release.

Grateful for the opportunity to have secured a place on the flight of about 200 passengers, with the help of a community member of the Freundlichs who were alerted about the situation by Rabbi Yosef Levin of Palo Alto, Calif., her hometown rabbi, she said she longed for things to return to normal after the exhausting and frightening ordeal.

The challenge was exacerbated by the lack of kosher food other than some fruit during the flight, but she said that her husband saw to it that his wife and daughter would not go without kosher meals on Shabbat.

“Kosher food was a big problem on the flight and would have been for Shabbat, but my husband drove eight hours from Northern California to the military base to drop off grape juice, challah and cold cuts,” she said.

She was not able to see him because of the quarantine guidelines; therefore, the food had to be dropped off at a visitor center and delivered by a soldier, she said.

Infection and Death Toll Rise

Rabbi Shimon Freundlich posted photos from Beijing.
Rabbi Shimon Freundlich posted photos from Beijing.

The Chinese National Health Commission on Friday updated the death toll in China from the virus to 213—up 43 victims from the day before—and the number of infections to 9,692 in the country, a spike of about 2,000 from the previous day. All of the deaths have occurred in Wuhan and its surrounding province Hubei, where the virus is said to have originated in early December at a wildlife and seafood market.

All of the deaths have occurred in China, but with increasing cases of infection around the world. Particularly alarming in the last day is the case in Chicago of the first documented person-to-person viral transmission, which occurred between spouses, one of whom had traveled to China. The other cases of infection have been reported in countries as far-flung as Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, Cambodia, Italy, Canada, Germany, Malaysia, Macao, India, Japan and several more.

In China, the crisis was spiraling into a fount of other difficulties, including exorbitant economic losses for the country and its institutions, said Avtzon.

To help remedy the situation, he is leading a joint effort among emissaries China-wide to establish a relief fund.

A cargo plane evacuating U.S. citizens also served as a health clinic.
A cargo plane evacuating U.S. citizens also served as a health clinic.

“Some of the smaller institutions in the network have budgets of as much as $20,000 a month and the bigger ones as much as $50,000 a month, as the rabbis and their wives cater to thousands of tourists, locals and businessmen whose movements are largely on hold.”

A quick call to Rabbi Dovi Henig who directs Chengdu Chabad with his wife, Sarale, reflected that state of affairs.

Although Henig wrote several posts over the past week reflecting a calm and service-oriented stance for his community, on Friday morning, he could only get the words out, “I am in a big crisis. I cannot talk right now.”

Across the country, in the city of Ningbo, south of Shanghai, Rabbi Kuty Kalmenson, wearing a large protective mask, was much more composed as he broadcast a pre-Shabbat video message to his community and the world.

Standing outside of the Chabad center that he operates with his wife, Rochel, on a typically busy thoroughfare, stripped of all but the most occasional vehicle, he explained that most people are staying home, adding that he and his family were taking, so far with success, all of the advised health precautions, which include washing everything that comes into their home.

“This leaves us with only a small chance to get the virus,” he said, sharing on a further positive note. “Thank you to all of the people who reached out to us in the past week to show us their concern. Much success and a guten [‘good’] Shabbat.”

To assist Jewish communities in China, visit