The streets of the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., during the weeks before Passover are usually busy and boisterous—those of a modern-day shtetl preparing for one of the biggest events of the year. Children ride their scooters and bikes after school, meeting their friends, cramming into the pizza shops, ice-cream stores and bakeries to get their pre-Passover chametz fix while their parents race against the clocks to ready their homes for the eight-day holiday. The kosher supermarkets, clothing boutiques and hardware stores are usually filled with people shopping for endless food, apparel and household supplies. Trucks line the streets—some for free food distribution, others collecting boxes of sheimot (loose pages of Torah that can not be thrown out). Donation drop-off bins and vans overflow with clothing that families give away to help others.

This year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the sights and sounds tell a different story. Children remain indoors, most non-essential stores are closed, and adults are not allowed inside supermarkets unless they wear masks, gloves and meet the minimum age requirement of 16. The streets are eerily quiet other than the frighteningly frequent Hatzalah volunteer ambulance siren blaring at any and all hours of the day or night. The synagogues are all closed. Look out the window on a weekday or Shabbat morning, and you’ll likely see a man wrapped in his tallit, singing and swaying on a balcony in the distance. Even the central Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway, which usually accommodates thousands of worshippers a day, has been barricaded for weeks. The only sign of spring are the budding trees lining the city streets.

Crown Heights—a community that is always hosting this weekend or that gathering—rarely experiences such a suburban ambiance. As home to the world headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, it is accustomed to holding large global events such as the International Conference of Chabad Emissaries (Kinus Hashluchim); Shabbatons for Chabad Young Professionals, Chabad on Campus and CTeens; or the Tzivos Hashem Chidon weekend for elementary-school-age students. Just a few weeks ago, hundreds of families were preparing to host children from around the world for the Chidon Jewish quiz for young students, which was scheduled for March. The live event was canceled, and families isolated at home around the world watched the game show online.

With a plethora of boys’ and girls’ schools right in the neighborhood—ranging from day-care centers through post-high school yeshivahs—homeschooling is a completely foreign concept for most families. The average morning in Crown Heights sees children walking heavy with backpacks, their parents rushing them to school-bus stops, the yellow buses snaking their way through the morning traffic. Older children and teenagers can be seen walking themselves, often accompanied by gaggles of friends.

By now, all that feels like the distant past. The unsettling blare of sirens now mix with the joyous tunes coming from the drive-by weddings that have become the new normal, as brides and grooms, instead of hosting big parties, drive through the neighborhood’s streets in an open-top car while friends, families and strangers come out to their stoops or porches to shout “Mazal Tov!”

The last two weeks have also seen the tragedy of death visited upon the community in numbers never before seen. A rosh yeshivah and a 55-year-old father, a synagogue rabbi and a 99-year-old matriarch—dozens of lives cut short, histories lost, families left in mourning, and right before the holiday.

The Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society) now goes about its holy work dressed in full Hazmat suits. The drive-by weddings have been joined by drive-by funerals, masked-and-gloved men and women paying their last respects from a distance.

‘Bringing Torah and Yeshivah Into Our Homes’

From the beginning of this strange new situation, Jewish schools, medical establishments and rabbis in Crown Heights were quick to respond. Working closely with one another, the neighborhood’s doctors and rabbis held a meeting with the heads of all schools, and on Friday, March 13, it was announced that educational institutions would close until further notice—this was two crucial days before New York City’s mayor closed public schools.

A bus advertisement thanks the Hatzalah volunteer EMS service for all its life-saving work.
A bus advertisement thanks the Hatzalah volunteer EMS service for all its life-saving work.

In a quick show of unity, all the major learning institutions—from the large Oholei Torah boys’ and Beth Rivkah girls’ schools to smaller ones—developed CHYeshiva.com, a platform where every one of the thousands of students could join in classes about Passover and other Jewish subjects from local teachers. Google Hangout, and especially Zoom, became technologies parents and students became familiar with very quickly, as teachers set up remote classrooms. In a community where large families are the norm and even the most tech-savvy household might run low on devices when there’s a demand on all of them at once, the CHYeshiva effort published a digital survey asking parents whether they needed to rent devices or make use of an Internet hotspot for their homes. The device rentals were offered at a discounted price, with a free option for those who could not afford that either.

The schools kept their kitchens open, preparing and distributing breakfast and lunch to families every day. “We will continue providing breakfast and lunch meals for our students and their siblings through Tuesday, April 7 … ,” read Oholei Torah’s email to all parents. “Please fill out this (anonymous) form for our kitchen staff to estimate how much to prepare.”

As Passover dawns, school lessons are now winding now. For the past few weeks, students of all ages have adapted to learning with their teachers and friends from their couches, dining-room tables, or odd nooks and crannies.

There was a learning curve for the schools and teachers, too. Rabbi Yaakov Sebbag and Rabbi Shmuli Turk, principals of Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim–United Lubavitcher Yeshiva, Ocean Parkway, did not have previous experience with online learning. Yet in a matter of hours, they set up a home-learning portal with Zoom links to log into classes;Google Classrooms whereteachers posted class work; PDFs of learning material and assignments; useful links, including CHYeshiva.com to the global online class; and updated daily schedules for each grade.

“The yeshivah building might be closed, but that won’t stop us! We are bringing the Torah and [holiness] of yeshivah into our homes!” reads the school’s resource web page, which also features photos of each teacher and Zoom links for every subject, even including an exercise class.

“It’s been inspiring to see how quickly the students adjusted to this new platform of learning,” said Rabbi Betzalel Broh, who teaches Tanach at ULY. “Initially, I attributed the excellent virtual ‘attendance’ and class participation to the novelty of it all. Yet a few weeks in, the students were just as engaged and involved in the class work.”

A Hatzalah volunteer ambulance recharges at one of the service's bases in front of the synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway.
A Hatzalah volunteer ambulance recharges at one of the service's bases in front of the synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway.

‘Everyone Was Struggling With the Right Thing to Do’

The coronavirus hit the Crown Heights Jewish community hard, fast and early. Just as quickly as it did, young and old have risen to the occasion. Young people are shopping for food and medicine for the elderly, and individuals and organizations are distributing free cases of Passover food, matzah and wine at various locations for pickup and delivery.

Especially crucial has been Hatzalah, the volunteer EMS service whose members have worked around the clock to save lives affected by the often-deadly virus. During the first week of the COVID-19 spread through the community, Hatzalah faced nonstop calls, its members hardly having any time to sleep—this as their own families, just like everyone else’s, were stuck at home. While the call volume has noticeably dropped, they’re not done, and many patients remain in critical condition.

Working together closely with Hatzalah, rabbis and community doctors, the Gedaliah Society is another group of individuals that have stood up to help during these unprecedented times. The group has a hotline that has answered more than 4,000 phone calls, giving direction to community members and coordinating volunteers. From the beginning, they’ve been far ahead of the city’s screening of symptoms—for example, using the lack of smell or taste as an indicator of the virus to tell people to self-quarantine a full week before it was widely known even among city doctors.

Dr. Shlomo Minkowitz started the Gedaliah Society six years ago in honor and memory of his father-in-law, Reb Gedaliah Shaffer, a respected member of the Crown Heights community who passed away tragically a few years earlier. It began as a social support network for a growing number of Lubavitchers in the field of medicine, including doctors, physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners and nurses (some 250 members in the Gedaliah Society network are linked in various stages of health care and training). The group usually holds monthly meetings on medical ethics and Jewish law, sometimes inviting doctors or rabbis to speak. Minkowitz developed a website, free-loan society and WhatsApp group to keep the group connected.

“The main point was to develop a sense of camaraderie and to support one another throughout our journeys,” he said. “It was not initially intended for a public-health service.”

When the virus hit Crown Heights in the immediate days after Purim, Minkowitz realized that he had valuable resources with many members of the Chabad community who are medically trained. “So we rapidly made use of it in the early days. There was so much confusion with symptoms and quarantine questions before Hatazalah were even taking people to the hospital. We decided to keep numbered updates every day on a website, in coordination with [community physician] Dr. Eli Rosen, as a unified voice for Crown Heights of what we know. There was a lot of what we were discovering every day and no instruction manual; everyone was struggling with the right thing to do.”

They immediately created a COVID-19 hotline led by Miriam Andrusier, a fourth-year medical student at SUNY Downstate, who collaborated with Dr. Zev Nelken, who also volunteers for Hatzalah. The hotline is currently staffed by more than 30 medical professionals who answer calls daily until 10 p.m.

“Everything is a team effort,” said Minkowitz. “Things were mobilized within two days. There were a lot of logistics; we got dozens of volunteers, each taking shifts. We have elaborate sheets of guidelines that’s constantly tweaked and discussed with Dr. Rosen. It’s personal on the hotline; it’s relatives and friends—it’s an all-hands-on-deck approach, with dozens of people doing all sorts of tasks.”

“Medicine is about helping people, beginning with those around you,” added Menachem Groden, a third year medical student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a Gedaliah Society hotline volunteer. “This gave all of us the opportunity to use what we’ve learned to educate the community and keep them safe.”

A preschool student at Oholei Torah interacts with his teacher from home via the computer. Crown Heights' Jewish schools shut their doors due to COVID-19 on Friday, March 13, they were all online by Monday, March 16.
A preschool student at Oholei Torah interacts with his teacher from home via the computer. Crown Heights' Jewish schools shut their doors due to COVID-19 on Friday, March 13, they were all online by Monday, March 16.

‘Watching Hotlines Coordinate and Everyone Pitching In’

Irit Lang, a Crown Heights resident who works with kidney-transplant patients, took command of the errand arm of things. She posted a Google form from the Gedaliah Society where volunteers are able to sign up and get added to a list. When a help request is processed, it is then handed over to the volunteers. The initiative, called Isolating Together, includes 100-plus men and women who have conducted hundreds of errands for Crown Heights families unable to leave their home for safety reasons. Volunteers are added to a WhatsApp group where there’s a flood of posts: grocery runs, medication pickups and delivering things to various New York hospitals.

“It’s so nice that I can help people in my community when I’m in the fortunate position of not needing it myself,” said Malka Friedman, a volunteer who checked on an elderly person over Shabbat who had just returned from the hospital while his wife still remained hospitalized. His children were away in quarantine, and he was home alone. The ill man’s concerned daughter reached out to the Gedaliah Society to find a volunteer to check on him, and Friedman saw that the address posted was the same building where she lives. Although she only spoke to him through the door, “it was reassuring for the family to know he was accounted for by someone,” she said.

“What ended up forming in two days is a remarkable display of teamwork,” said Minkowitz. “We have an incredible brain trust in the community—dozens of people with medical knowledge who harnessed it in such a short term.”

Dovid Halon, a member of the Gedaliah Society, mobilized a team of mental-health professionals with Neshamos.org, now integrated into the hotline to provide anonymous support.

“It’s a remarkable show of collaboration for a community in crisis,” said Minkowitz. “Everyone is doing this while working day jobs and with kids. It’s a dark time, but so beautiful watching the hotlines coordinate and everyone pitching in.”

Minkowitz said that some calls coming in have real medical issues and they are careful to emphasize that they are not functioning as a medical practice and therefore refer clinical questions to their doctor. The Gedaliah Society, together with Hatzalah, initiated a survey two weeks ago to determine the extent that the virus has spread throughout the community, and at this time has more than 4,000 responses yielding very valuable data that continues to be analyzed.

Other organizations assisting community members include Ahavas Chesed, which helps with food delivery to patients and transportation for patients to the hospital, and Zeh Lozeh.

The community has shown its great appreciation to the volunteers in various ways. Hatzalah volunteers, literally on the front lines, have been risking their own health to care for the ill. For the past three weeks, they received beautiful gift packages before Shabbat, arranged by local resident Shmuly Kopfstein and donors. The gifts included a bouquet of flowers, a wine, fish, challah and kugel.

The funeral of Rabbi Yisroel Friedman, the rosh yeshivah of Oholei Torah, passed through the streets of Crown Heights.
The funeral of Rabbi Yisroel Friedman, the rosh yeshivah of Oholei Torah, passed through the streets of Crown Heights.

Life and Death in the Shadow of Virus

So much of Jewish life is, of course, communal. Shabbat without going to synagogue due to a deadly virus can be dealt with, but what about a wedding? Jewish weddings, communal occasions celebrated by all, are a key foundation of Jewish community. The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, famously asked parents and young couples to not get carried away with the details of planning a wedding—at the time it was not unusual for people to wait six months or even a year for the wedding—and understand that building a beautiful new Jewish household could not wait, and the sooner the better. Weddings that had been planned for these last weeks, therefore, would not be canceled; they just needed an original solution.

That’s how the Glympse trackers began. In the age of the coronavirus, the new couple gets married in a simple ceremony with just their limited family surrounding them (or sometimes not even them) and the streets of Crown Heights become their wedding hall. They get in a car while a link to the Glympse tracking app—often used by school buses to indicate their location—is sent out via social media. A few times each week, well-wishers, all safely distanced, come out to celebrate. While indeed different, it certainly makes for a memorable wedding experience.

Members of the Chevra Kadisha Jewish burial society now go about their holy work wearing full Hazmats suits.
Members of the Chevra Kadisha Jewish burial society now go about their holy work wearing full Hazmats suits.

It began with the Jacobson and Deitsch families’ wedding, when both relatives and acquaintances celebrated from their doorways, waving and dancing on the streets outside. There have been numerous other motorcade weddings since with caravans driving through the streets while livestreaming it on community chats. Some people get dressed up in full wedding gear to attend outside: women don gowns and men kapotes, hundreds coming outside their homes to joyously greet the couple.

This happy trend was followed two weeks later by the funerals. They, too, have been streamed. The funeral procession of Rabbi Yisrael Friedman, the eminent rosh yeshivah of Oholei Torah and a Crown Heights fixture for more than half a century, would have under normal circumstances drawn a crowd of thousands. Instead, the Chevra Kadisha drove the hearse through almost each of the community’s streets to allow the multitudes of his students the opportunity to accompany him on his last journey in this world.

Passover approaches, and as with most communities that are staying put, the Crown Heights community will “Seder-in-Place.” This may be the first time most homes will be without guests, conducting their quarantine Seders only with those family members with whom they live so as not to put others at risk. With synagogues closed and children indoors, the streets of Crown Heights this Passover will be unprecedentedly silent.

A happy note: young couples have often celebrated their corona-minimized weddings with parades through the community's streets, allowing friends and strangers to come out and wish "Mazal Tov!"
A happy note: young couples have often celebrated their corona-minimized weddings with parades through the community's streets, allowing friends and strangers to come out and wish "Mazal Tov!"

But on the Seder nights, inside the homes on the empty streets, despite whatever is going on in the world outside, the holiday candles will glow. The Seder plate will be set; red wine will be poured once, twice, three times and four; and young and old will, as their ancestors before them, lean to their left and eat the shmurah matzah—the food of faith and food of healing.

Like their brethren around the world, they will recall the miracles G‑d performed when He took the Jewish people out of Egyptian enslavement 3,300 years ago, and pray that G‑d protect His people and heal His world “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.”

A happy note: young couples have often celebrated their corona-minimized weddings with parades through the community's streets, allowing friends and strangers to. come out and wish "Mazal Tov!"
A happy note: young couples have often celebrated their corona-minimized weddings with parades through the community's streets, allowing friends and strangers to. come out and wish "Mazal Tov!"