This article will be shorter than I intended. First of all, given what is taking place, my head is not completely tuned in. More importantly, I was going to write about the greatness of the Jewish community, as well as the epic failure of some of its religious leadership.
However, in these times, when we need to remain positive and with unity, I will follow the famous words of Shimon HaAmsoni: “Just as I received reward for the exegeses I have made, so, too, will I receive reward for the withdrawal from them” (P’sachim 22b). We will save the critique for some other time.
Let me begin by offering my highest praise for Rabbi Noach Isaac Oelbaum shlita. He has been in the forefront of publicly combating those in several communities that have not taken seriously the coronavirus and the medical directives. His main point has been that Jews every year are so exacting and meticulous with the mitzvah of matzos and their production. What about the most important mitzvah of all: “And you shall live by them (VaYikra 18:5)? Is that not paramount? Does not pikuach nefesh (saving lives) override every other mitzvah in the Torah, including Shabbos and Yom Kippur? All of a sudden we are taking this mitzvah lightly?!
I always tell people that in the priority of things, relating to pikuach nefesh, e.g., eating on Yom Kippur, the first decision is made by the patient. Then comes the doctor, and last is the rabbi. In matters of lifesaving, the doctor is before the rabbi. So it should be with this awful virus.
But let’s focus on the greatness of most of the Orthodox community. Chesed has been incredible. Hatzalah volunteers have put their own lives at risk to save others. Doctors and nurses have done the same. Pop-up organizations such as Zeh La’zeh right here in Queens, have been arranging a whole host of volunteers to shop for those such as the elderly who cannot leave their homes. All kinds of Internet-based programs have been offering free Torah lectures and concerts by leading performers. Our own son, R’ Ari Schonfeld, almost overnight raised significant money to fund a Zoom program in which he teaches boys Gemara (Tamid) plus performers and nightly raffles. On a nightly basis, he attracts over 700 kids from coast to coast. Simply incredible! I can go on and on, but my time is short due to the demands of the situation.
I would like to publicly thank Mr. Stuart Smolar, who pressed upon us the urgency to close our Young Israel three weeks ago, and the shul leadership readily followed. Responsible shuls followed, and who knows how many countless lives were saved?
Unfortunately, as I write these words, funeral arrangements are being made for a wonderful young man, Harvey Sheff, who recently became a member of YIKGH, who passed from this virus this morning. Let us hope that Hashem removes this awful plague from the world and the Jewish community as soon as possible! Amen.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.