Crisis and Opportunity: Network Members Talk About Their New COVID-19 Realities – Kobi Rozenstein

Kobi Rozenstein is the CEO of a national educational network that includes a seminary, high school & kindergartens

A voice from the field: An ultra-Orthodox Network member shares what the COVID-19 crisis looks like in the society that’s been hit the hardest

“We didn’t prepare well enough. Not for the coronavirus or for how it would impact our society – the ultra-Orthodox society. We didn’t imagine how fast it would reach us; how wide its impact would be. Neither we nor the rest of the country were prepared enough. It took us all far too long to fully understand the severity and dramatic size of this event.

We didn’t request that the coronavirus reach us on specific dates; we didn’t imagine that we would spend the festive days leading up to Passover in quarantine, feeling stressed and threatened. But in combining our routine with this emergency, an epidemic and a holiday, we have to think and act quickly moving forward.

I started my morning on a Zoom called with MAOZ Network members. We tried to understand and solve what has become such a big challenge: how can we deal with and curb the spread of the coronavirus within the ultra-Orthodox society?
Take, for example, the issue of quarantining. We all understand that anyone who’s been infected with the virus must quarantine themselves. But what about when that person is part of an ultra-Orthodox family that lives in a small house without many rooms? How can you expect quarantining to take place in such conditions? So the idea to place quarantined people in hotels came up. But here too – you’ve got to understand ultra-Orthodox society. How can you send an ultra-Orthodox child to quarantine in a hotel with a TV? The parents will tell you that although the child may return healthy, he or she may no longer be ultra-Orthodox upon returning.
People can make a change in their private and group behavior – but how can we help them do this? How do we translate it into something they know? How can we provide relevant solutions to what they need? How can rabbis and clerics help in the effort?
As soon as I got off the call, my phone rang. A MAOZ Network member had called me after she had seen a message I had written in one of the Network’s Whatsapp groups and offered to support the effort. She, a young Arab Christian woman from Jaffa, began talking to me about how I’d be preparing for the religious customs on the eve of the holiday at a time when the coronavirus has changed everyone’s routines.
I needed to take a few moments to describe to her what the ultra-Orthodox streets look like on the days and hours leading up to Passover. The many individuals and families who embark on their important mission before the beginning of the holiday: the removal of chametz (foods with leavening agents). The act of burning the house’s leftover chametz as part of preparing for the holiday is less of a given now. We, the public, need to think about how to do it in advance.

How can people avoid over-crowding the streets? Is it possible to avoid the burning of chametz and the clouds of smoke which come at a time of serious breathing difficulties?
We turned to Network members – some of whom work within the healthcare system in various roles and some of whom are ultra-Orthodox – in order to understand the festive customs’ health implications and what we can do to reduce the negative impact on us all.

Several other questions were raised. Would doctors issue an instructional document? How can we make the messages accessible to the ultra-Orthodox society and give our communities the tools to deal with this challenging situation? Would rabbis consider appealing to the public themselves?

As a public figure, I have a role to play in this crisis. And that role is twofold. It begins in my professional position with the educational frameworks I run: the hundreds of teachers and thousands of students who we are committed to continue learning with, albeit remotely.

But being a public figure goes much further than my professional role. My responsibility is also to my community; to our society.

Like everyone else, the coronavirus caught us unprepared. But there’s been another surprise during this whole ordeal, and that’s been the speed and power of the work we have done with the MAOZ Network – a network that allows me to simply pick up the phone and say: ‘I have a problem, I need help, I need advice.’ This is a network you give and flesh out information with; we connect and share resources.

The shared responsibility I spoke about – now we’re acting on it in the field.”