My reflections as the president of a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Milwaukee.
The world around us continues to be driven by the devastation resulting from the COVID-19, both in terms of illness and death, as well as economic instability.
The past several weeks have also seen demonstrations around the nation following the murder of George Floyd. This outcry for racial harmony will hopefully lead to a new era of “liberty and justice for all.” Unfortunately, these protests may lead to a potential surge in COVID-19 cases.
More positively, the first half of June saw a decrease in new cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin and expanded testing for the disease. This led to varied stages of “reopening.” However, it is not time to decrease one’s vigilance about hand washing, use of hand sanitizer, wearing a mask in public, maintaining social distancing and protecting our friends and family who have risk factors for the disease.
As a physician, I am greatly concerned with current data showing that COVID-19 cases are starting to spike in 22 states (most of which reopened with minimal restrictions before May 15). This is not the feared “second wave” of disease, which is still anticipated in the fall coincident with seasonal influenza, but rather an extension of the initial wave of COVID-19 that is spreading in direct response to the abandonment of the safer-at-home policies. I am concerned with our current conundrum that pits the cost of reopening (measured in illnesses and deaths) against the imposition of new, enforceable limits on reopening (measured in limitations of personal freedom and economic hardship). I believe we should always continue to stand clearly and unabashedly on the side of preservation of life (pikuach nefesh).
With this in mind, I am concerned about the planned reopening of all University of Wisconsin regional campuses this summer and fall, which includes University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, which is adjacent to my congregation, Lake Park Synagogue. The leadership of the UW system, which has lost over $100 million with the total disruption of campus life this spring and the move to online learning, has reportedly decided that of UW must open “for the good of the students.” The Chancellors at each campus, however, do not have to share dorm rooms or bathrooms, stand in line for food, or closely interact with housekeeping personnel and then return home at Thanksgiving to be with family (who may be at increased risk of infection).
My question as president of LPS is: when we will resume regular services in person? We cannot Zoom virtual shabbat services, and our outdoor space is not adequate for services with appropriate social distancing. For the immediate future, we will not be reopening, and will continue to follow the well-developed guidelines of the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America. Instead, we have invested our time and energy into our dynamic weekly Zoom calendar. This includes Rabbi Joel Dinin’s insightful classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and a Wednesday interactive “Conversations with Congregants.” These events continue to be complemented by the Rabbi’s personal phone calls to each member of the congregation.
Our congregation misses our communal prayers and social contacts. However, through our efforts during this difficult time, we remain a strong community.
Ellis D. Avner, MD, retired in 2015 as emeritus professor of Pediatrics and Physiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and attending physician and director, Multidisciplinary Program for Childhood Polycystic Kidney Disease in the Division of Nephrology at the Children’s Hospital Health System of Wisconsin.