While the health threat posed by the COVID-19 coronavirus has forced much of Jewish life in Atlanta to the online, virtual world, some services, by their very nature, must be conducted in person.
Before the coronavirus, about half of the planning at Dressler’s Jewish Funeral Care was done over the phone, but that now is 85 to 90 percent “and we’re recommending that we do that,” said Eddie Dressler, the Atlanta native who co-founded the business with his wife, Sam, in 1997.
“Our business has a lot of physical aspects to it,” Dressler said. “We move the deceased. We bring them here and handle them” and then there are the caskets, cars and cemeteries. The coronavirus has placed an added premium on disinfecting the surfaces that the staff touches, using rubbing alcohol, a bleach solution and other cleaners.
“Over the last two weeks we’ve had several funerals and, along with the cemeteries, we strongly recommend that it’s family-only, give or take 10 people, and be respectful to keep distance from each other,” Dressler said, adding that most people have adhered to that request. For those unable to attend, Dressler’s can livestream graveside services on its Facebook page.
Dressler has ongoing conversations with rabbis and the leaders of hevra kedisha, the Jewish burial societies, men and women who make certain that a body is prepared for burial according to Jewish law. “Each kedisha has its own choice: to come to the funeral home or modify what they do. We’re making strong recommendations. It hasn’t been easy. It’s sacred. It’s personal. We’re trying to reduce the number of people,” he said.
At the beginning of life’s spectrum, the coronavirus has changed the brit milah, the circumcision ceremony traditionally performed on the eighth day of a Jewish boy’s life.
Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman of Chabad Intown has performed hundreds of circumcisions in his 17 years as a mohel. “I have always taken extra precautions to perform a bris in the most sterile manner, while balancing the traditional experience,” he said. “This obviously has kicked things to an entirely new level. I want the bris to be a traditional Jewish experience, not a medical event. Unfortunately, with the extra precautions it can feel like a medical event.
“Ideally a brit has a minyan present,” Schusterman said. The ceremony often takes place before the immediate family, joined by relatives who may have traveled some distance, as well as friends. “At this time, only the immediate family, those living in the house, are permitted to attend. All present are wearing face masks and sterile gloves.”
Another aspect of Jewish life, particularly in the Orthodox community, also has been affected.
The Metro Atlanta Community Mikvah on March 15 went to immersions-only until further notice, suspending education and other programs. “Everything is appointment-based and spaced accordingly,” said executive director Jocelyn Schorvitz. The vast majority of the average 30 guests per month using the ritual bath are women, though 10 to 20 percent are men. The mikvah is an independent entity located on land leased on the grounds of Congregation B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs.
Schorvitz said that she has been told by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and doctors “that the water remains safe.” According to the CDC website, “There is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread to humans through the use of pools and hot tubs. Proper operation, maintenance, and disinfection (e.g., with chlorine and bromine) of pools and hot tubs should remove or inactivate the virus that causes COVID-19.”
Schorvitz said, “We are disinfecting the prep room and all door handles and the mikvah area before and after each guest. We check our water levels daily. We use bromine as a sanitizing agent and we check the pH balance every day and it’s filtered with UV lights every night.”
Homeless shelters operated by Jewish congregations also are adjusting to the coronavirus.
“All essential staff, the program staff, are working around the clock. This has meant an increase in hours for all staff,” said Adrianne Hamilton-Butler, executive director of the Zaban Paradies Center, operated by The Temple. “Our priority is the safety and well-being of our residents, staff and volunteers. We are currently open and serving residents. However, we are no longer conducting intakes. We are currently operating 24/7 and will do so for the foreseeable future. Only staff and residents are allowed in the facility.”
Zaban Paradies currently houses 13 couples (26 residents). “Some of our residents are unemployed, furloughed, or complying with the stay-at-home order as a consequence of COVID-19. Those who are not going to a job stay in the shelter 24/7, except to get personal groceries or prescriptions. This impacts roughly 70 percent of our residents,” Hamilton-Butler said.
“The shelter is vigorously cleaned and disinfected twice a day. Hand sanitizer stations are located throughout the facility and at the two entrances. We are fortunate in that our facility is room-based versus bed-based, so our residents are able to separate themselves in their rooms. The program directors meet with the residents daily to keep them up-to-date about COVID-19 protocol, to include social distancing,” she said.
Normally, the shelter’s residential season would end April 30, but “We may need to extend the residential season in order to keep our residents from living on the street,” Hamilton-Butler said. The ripple effect would be a need for additional food and supplies. “Because of the economic impact of the virus, we also expect an increase in the need for emergency goods and services as part of our May-to-September aftercare and supportive services program,” she said.
Rebecca’s Tent: Spiegel Women’s Shelter at Shearith Israel, located in the synagogue’s basement, provides shelter, meals and support to homeless women, usually from 6:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. November through mid-March. Even before the coronavirus, the board of Rebecca’s Tent extended the season until the end of April.
Because of the shelter’s relatively small size and the need to meet social distancing recommendations, clients are being housed in an extended-stay hotel, where they are screened nightly for health issues. As the shelter continues to be used for programs and job counseling, the frequency with which that space is cleaned and sanitized has increased.
“The virus has put an additional strain on our financial resources as we had to move the women off site, provide space during the day, and increase the hours of the resident management staff,” said Gillian Gansler, board chair of Rebecca’s Tent.
As at the Zaban Paradies Center, the generosity of financial supporters and volunteers “has become more important than ever now and will continue to be so even more in the future,” Gansler said.