By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
There is a debate raging in this country that affects every one of us. Should the country reopen or should it remain shut? Should virtually everyone be locked in their homes or should people be allowed to work, shop and enjoy life, while doing their best to protect themselves and others? Is this country primarily a capitalist democracy where people have the freedom of choice and are trusted to conduct themselves and their businesses in a responsible way?
The other side contends that the government has the authority to declare a state of emergency for as long as it wishes, despite the financial, spiritual, and mental costs. The government’s opinion is superior to that of the citizens, who have no right to protest and are trusted to be able to conduct their lives in a safe way.
It started when the coronavirus came to these shores. The opinion of certain medical experts, adopted in this country and in the majority of countries around the world, was that the best way to contain the virus is to lock everyone in their homes. A shutdown ensued. People were told that the virus is so contagious and so deadly that it could kill upwards of 2.2 million Americans and therefore it was obligatory for everyone to stay at home, avoiding all human contact. Schools were closed, as were shuls, stores, businesses, entertainment venues, courts and offices. Basically everything with a door lock was sealed shut. Certain places that were deemed essential were allowed to remain open.
America was told that the virus would make so many people sick that hospitals everywhere would be overwhelmed, so citizens needed to stay home to keep the virus from spreading from one person to another. All elective surgery was cancelled as hospitals emptied to make room for the avalanche of virus patients. People who needed surgery sat home growing sicker.
In fact, for the most part, it never happened. Hospitals across the country sat empty.
Some hospitals in hard-hit places such as New York City were initially flooded with corona patients and proved incapable of caring for them. Tent facilities quickly went up to contain the multitudes of sick who would be supposedly come down with the virus. Ships were sent floating to New York and huge arenas were retrofitted into hospitals at huge expense. All those emergency facilities stood virtually empty. Hospitals lost so much money that they have been forced to lay off doctors, nurses and other personnel and are begging for bailouts.
The American people were told that once the virus would be under control and the curve of sickness flattened, the country would reopen and people would be able to leave their homes and resume their previous lives, while maintaining social distancing and other guidelines designed to keep them safe.
The virus is deadly, and it is real, but 98% of the people who got it recovered. Most deaths occurred in a few states, and in those states, many of the deaths were in nursing homes. In Pennsylvania, 75% of the 3,800 tragic deaths occurred in nursing homes. Fifty percent of the deaths in New Jersey were in long-term adult care facilities. In Maryland, 793 of the state’s 1,338 victims, almost 60%, were people in nursing home type institutions. It is said that nationally, one-third of corona deaths were patients and staff of long-term care facilities. In New York, Governor Cuomo mandated that nursing homes admit Covid patients into their facilities. This contributed to New York’s 5,300 nursing home deaths, out of 22, 619; close to 25%.
In the U.S., 1.52 million people contracted the disease and some 90,000 died, It is very tragic, but nowhere near the 2.2 million deaths doomsday victim number experts and their models initially predicted.
The shutdown has thrown the economy into a depression. Thirty million people have lost their jobs. Businesses forced to remain closed are going bankrupt and shopkeepers are unable to feed their families. Entire industries are on the verge of collapse, as their income has disappeared. Nobody knows what the next day will bring.
Meanwhile, by now, a study of the numbers clearly indicates that the curve has been flattened. The number of people succumbing to the disease has dropped precipitously across the country and around the world.
People have had enough and are staging protests, demanding that their state reopen. In fact, several states have reopened, and as stores reopen and people slowly return to work, money has started trickling in.
But there is an obvious split here. The only states that have responded to the dropping numbers and fearful economic data are those led by Republican governors. Democrat-led states, in which a majority of this country’s Jews reside, largely remain closed. Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York says that it is too dangerous to reopen and is only slowly permitting portions of the state to resume activities.
New York City is closed, draining the people, industry and tax base of the state, with no end to the lockdown in sight. Not only the people, but also the police and prosecutors of the city have had enough and have said that they will not enforce the mayor’s rules on social distancing and the wearing of masks. The mayor of Los Angeles has promised to keep L.A. shut for at least another three months. Michigan’s governor has gone to radical ends to enforce her stay-at-home order. New Jersey’s governor says life cannot return to the state’s workplaces, downtowns and main streets until a proven vaccine is widely available.
At the same time, Republican governors have successfully begun opening states such as Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, Florida and Texas.
States are desperate for relief, but the Democrat governors are reluctant to give up their power. People are desperate to make a living and pay their bills, but instead they are lectured by the same people who placed the virus into nursing homes, causing thousands of elderly people to die.
There is genuine distress in this country. Americans are sick of being confined. They are sick of not being able to take care of their needs and they are sick of having their rights taken away from them.
The people followed instructions and together flattened the curve of the disease. In return, government has flattened small business owners and people who live paycheck to paycheck who lost their jobs. There is terrible suffering in our community, as people scavenge for sources of income. Many have joined the ranks of the poor, taking handouts and accepting free food to keep themselves going.
Yet, perhaps more importantly for us is the fact that schools and shuls remain closed. The chinuch of our children is the prime objective of our lives and a cause to which we dedicate much of our time and money. The shul and bais medrash are the axis around which our lives as frum Jews evolve. Permit me for being blunt, but how much longer can we go on like this?
We cannot wait anymore for the politicians, who have no incentive to open schools. They don’t care. It’s not important to them. Apparently, it is more important to them to keep the economy suppressed so that the hated president’s poll numbers continue dropping and their party has a chance to beat him in the November election. They will continue to come up with different numbers and excuses, but the bottom line is that if schools remain closed, then parents cannot return to work. For all practical purposes, as long as schools are closed, the state is closed.
Let us be honest. School being closed has taken a big toll on parents, but children are suffering much more. Students are regressing. They are not learning as they should be. Students are falling behind academically, in gaining knowledge, in learning how to get along with other people and how to advance in life. Young people are missing social connections. They are missing having friends and people their age with whom to talk and play – and fight. Does that make any sense to anyone? We are in uncharted territory. Nobody knows much about this virus, yet they know that everything must remain slammed shut in states controlled by Democrats until at least November.
I have no medical education. I don’t know how to create computer models. But I do know that all the computer models that predicted Armageddon were wrong. The virus is dangerous, it has killed many people, but countries all over the world are opening up, so why aren’t we?
Israel had one of the most effective lockdowns, and thanks to much siyata diShmaya, they lost under three hundred people. The comparison to New York City, which has a similar population, is staggering. And while New York City remains shut and schools and shuls are closed, in Israel schools are open, yeshivos have reopened, stores are operating, weddings are taking place, and the country is getting back to work, with strict measures in force to prevent a return of the deadly illness.
What is going on here?
You could be forgiven for concluding that it’s not the virus that’s causing the permanent closings of businesses, but the way government has chosen to deal with it.
When you meet people in government, or if you listen closely to them, you find out that they are not any smarter than anyone else. There is nothing more intelligent about them, nothing that qualifies them to make decisions that affect the lives of millions of people. They are surrounded by “yes men,” sycophants who offer them accolades for their heroic work.
And our children are suffering. So are we. We were supposed to flatten the curve, not the kids.
How long can they continue learning over the telephone, or on Zoom? It is not practical, and even if it is working now, it will not work until November. Children are bored. They don’t have what to do all day, and when children are bored, nothing good can come of the situation. Not every child lives in an optimal family situation. Their parents are frustrated. Everyone is stressed. The father or mother may have lost their job and money is tight. Being cooped up in the house can lead to a breakdown in shalom bayis and abuse often ensues. The children have nowhere to escape to, nobody to cry to, no friends to hang with, and nobody to help them along in their studies. They begin a downward spiral.
Children who were doing well in their studies are now falling behind, and the longer they stay out of school, the harder it will be to get them back on track and where they belong. The knowledge they are lacking and the personal interaction with their rebbi, morah or teacher they are losing out on will take a long time to replace. Many children will need special help that their parents will not be able to afford. New problems are being created every day. New issues are popping up and the emotional health of our children is at stake.
Bochurim who were shteiging in yeshiva, adhering to a schedule and a learning framework, are now playing it loose. Learning with a chavrusah on the phone in your bedroom is not the same as being part of a pulsating bais medrash, with lively back and forth under the guidance of a beloved rebbi. They have to be self-motivating and be able to inspire themselves to keep to sidrei hayeshiva, starting with davening in the morning and continuing with keeping the sedorim at home or in a shul that allows them to study there surreptitiously. Not everyone is up to the challenge.
We value life. We place a premium on life. But if we don’t put the genie back into the bottle soon, it will be increasingly difficult to get our children back to where they need to be on a scholastic level and on a Yiddishkeit level. It is time to figure out how to do it in a safe and responsible manner. Torah is our lifeblood. It is our essence.
If bars and restaurants and businesses of all types located in Republican states can figure out how to safely reopen, then surely the am chochom venavon should be able to figure out how to open our mosdos with proper social distancing, safety measures and guidelines.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy was holding one of his regular press conferences last week when he announced that the Jersey Shore will be opened in time for Memorial Day. How is it that the governor of one of the hardest hit states, who has resists opening stores and businesses and has insisted on keeping his stay-at-home order in place because of his overwhelming concern for public safety, decided to open the beaches?
Listen to what he said: “The Shore is central to our identity and we want to ensure that families can safely enjoy it this summer.”
Their identity is The Shore, the beach, and therefore they will do what they must to have it open, “so that families can safely enjoy it.”
I ask you: Is our identity any less important than a beach? Are our children less important than the seashore? Is our future less important than the boardwalk?
The time is now to reopen that which is central to our identity and our families’ physical and spiritual wellbeing.