A Year Of Corona
March 4, 2021
Where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we are headed
Can you believe it’s already a year since last March, when the world as we knew it came to a screeching halt? Do you remember how you felt as the reports came in and started getting closer to home? Could you ever have imagined that what started as a lockdown for “two weeks to slow the spread” would become a year of a global roller coaster of closings, reopenings, fear, testing, quarantines, uncertainty, skepticism, suffering, and hope?
Whatever our age, stage, or situation, we have all been affected somehow. Our community and the world at large have lost way too many loved ones. We have struggled and dealt with situations we never imagined possible. Perhaps you wish it never would have happened, or perhaps it has even benefited you in pleasantly surprising ways. Hopefully, we can reflect with a sense of pride on our resilience and resolve to emerge from this experience a little better than before.
The period before Purim through after Pesach 5780 was excruciating—fear of the unknown, long lists of names for Tehillim, daily announcements of niftarim, virtual levayos and shivah calls, and trying to keep children gainfully occupied indoors. Ironically, an unexpected upside of our community’s early exposure enabled many to develop antibodies, allowing them to resume much of “normal life” relatively quickly, albeit with some precautions and changes, while many parts of the country and the world continued to face deadly waves of the virus.
As the numbers grow astoundingly high, it is difficult to conclude if other causes of death have been conflated with COVID-caused deaths. On the other hand, the true numbers are perhaps much higher, as anecdotal evidence suggests thousands of people in frum communities experienced COVID symptoms before widespread testing was available, so those cases were not even recorded.
Medical professionals at all levels have been the brave and devoted soldiers at the frontlines of fighting the pandemic all year. They have suited up day in and day out, selflessly treating patients despite risk to their own health. They have been adapting, researching, and shifting as things develop to try to help as many people as possible, trying to fight an invisible, unknown, and unpredictable enemy. Hatzolah volunteers, always available for emergencies, have responded speedily to thousands of calls for help, driving, treating, and advocating for patients at hospitals all over. Some have commented it felt like “a war zone” or a “mass-casualty event.” A year into it, a Hatzolah administrator explains that while they still see new COVID patients, fewer are going into hospitals. “We know now how to guide patients better” with the proper treatment, based on their symptoms and their duration.
Our local healthcare practices have patiently provided many vital services to thousands of residents. According to a spokesperson of the CEO, as of late January, CHEMED has administered approximately 90,000 COVID-19 tests to about 40,000 patients, 25,000 antibody tests, and 4,000 vaccines.
Lev Rochel Bikur Cholim of Lakewood was a champion of medical advocacy, life-saving efforts, and practical support for thousands of local patients and their families. As soon as science emerged with evidence of the benefits of antibodies from recovered COVID patients, LRBC jumped to facilitate plasma antibody testing. Together with the Mayo Clinic, LRBC hosted the largest plasma research project in the world, with two major plasma drives, yielding over 20,000 blood samples resulting in 2,000 plasma donations and 15,000 plasma units.
The Lakewood Community Services Corporation (LCSC) has supported the community in many ways, including delivering over 50,000 kosher meals to seniors since the beginning of the pandemic.
While some families enjoyed and thrived from quality time together, for many others it has been a real struggle. Amudim, an international organization that spreads awareness and offers support and services for addiction, abuse, mental health, and other issues in the Jewish community, pushed into high gear to proactively service the community. In 2020 alone, they saw a “whopping surge” in cases—about a 70 percent increase—recording around 85,000 calls for help.
Lakewood-based life coach Menachem Bernfeld, together with his neighbor Rabbi Parness, discovered a need early on during the lockdown for people to get together and get support amid the challenging situation. What started as a group of friends shmoozing on the phone has morphed into a weekly web program, “Let’s Get Real,” with interesting and relevant topics presented by esteemed rabbanim and various experts. An average of 500 loyal listeners tune in each week via phone or Zoom, with about 1,500 replays around the world; one program was viewed 50,000 times.
Listeners hear from the experts and then have the opportunity to ask and discuss topics live, on-air. They feel validated that others share in their struggles and receive real guidance on when and how to get help. Awareness is growing about various issues, and many people are getting support. One listener reflected that even while mired in their own challenges, “It makes me feel so grateful for my own pekelah and helps me to learn what others are going through.”
American unemployment in 2020 was at its highest in April, at 14.7 percent, and has fluctuated every month since. Thankfully, the Trump administration enacted several stimulus plans that assisted millions of citizens and businesses and stabilized the economy in many ways. While many saw losses, the United States actually gained 56 new billionaires in 2020, bringing the total to 659.
The worst financial year on record for the airline industry, the International Air Transport Association forecast that in 2020 and 2021, the industry lost approximately $157 billion, much worse than previous estimates. The five largest hotel chains in the world—Wyndham, Marriott, Intercontinental, Hilton, and Choice—lost almost $80 billion by September.
On April 20, 2020, the lack of travel by cars, buses, planes, ships, etc., led to such a surplus of oil that prices dropped to the lowest level in history: minus $37 a barrel. By January 2021, it returned to over $51 a barrel.
As news trickled in and Americans sensed the impending doom, a “fear contagion” sent millions to stock up on household necessities for the foreseeable future. On March 12, The Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2020 saw sales of toilet paper balloon 734 percent year-over-year, becoming the top-selling product at grocery stores.
With millions of workers at home and no social events to attend, potential customers had no need to shop for new clothing, especially not career or special-occasion attire. Many brick-and-mortar retail stores, already suffering before the pandemic hit, filed for bankruptcy protection, consolidating their properties and debt while closing stores. Iconic retailers such as Century 21; J. Crew; Neiman Marcus, the parent company of Ann Taylor; and over-200-year-old Brooks Brothers filed for bailouts. Lord and Taylor, which had already sold its flagship Manhattan store, is liquidating all 38 stores nationwide.
The obvious winners of pandemic shopping were online retailers, especially those offering quick delivery. Amazon saw the largest-ever quarterly revenue in its 26-year history, $96 billion at the end of 2020, up 200 percent year-over-year, and expanded its workforce to over one million employees. Walmart’s e-commerce sales grew by 74 percent to almost $135 billion by the end of 2020. They hired over 200,000 people and gave bonuses to employees for their help during the pandemic.
Already a business considered challenging to turn profitable, indoor dining establishments were of the hardest-hit venues, having suffered from unpredictable closing, reopening, and many regulations. According to the National Restaurant Association, the industry lost $240 billion in sales during 2020. In New Jersey, almost 70 restaurants have been forced to close. In New York City alone, which has faced extensive bans on indoor dining, roughly 1,000 establishments have shut their doors.
One “perk” this year was the abundant supplemental food distributed and school lunches subsidized by the government. According to its website, the USDA purchased $8.6 billion and another $4.5 billion in fresh produce from American producers who would normally cater to hotels, restaurants, and other establishments that saw reduced demand. The Food Box Program has provided more than 125 million food boxes, and in October, the USDA announced free meals for all children throughout the entire 2020–2021 school year.
Mr. Michael Inzelbuch, General Counsel for the Lakewood Board of Education, has helped facilitate distribution of approximately 4 million meals to local families, not including the thousands (millions?) of boxes given by yeshivos.
Even with government stimulus checks, organizations that supply food and other basic necessities in every Jewish community faced unprecedented demand this past year. Last Pesach and its expenses came early and quickly while so many were battling corona and were newly out of work, and the need has persisted throughout the year. With the support of the community, Tomchei Shabbos of Lakewood raised the funds to deliver 323,000 boxes to help 1,800 families with over 17,000 children, their largest distribution ever.
Even while 2020 saw the worst economic downturn in a century, fund-raising in the Jewish world reached new heights. Mrs. Chayale Kaufman and her team at Jewish Content Network oversaw many of the ad campaigns for organizations and yeshivos that have inundated our mailboxes and inboxes this year. She says people used to be “skeptical about raising money online,” considering personal relationships as paramount. But since events were canceled this year, people were forced to think “creatively,” offering virtual entertainment and other options, and thinking “out of their network,” resulting in a much larger pool of donors. She describes the campaigns “like a wildflower—you blow it, and it spreads and grows so far away.”
While some groups chose to avoid Internet-based campaigns, Mrs. Kaufman explains, “Everything can be used for good or for bad; we have bechirah what to do with it. We can’t control others but can educate them how to make better decisions.”
She claims more money has been raised this year than ever before. The campaigns in which JCN has been involved this year have generated over $100 million in donations.
Modern technology offers amazing opportunities for connection and accessibility, and we cannot imagine the world this past year without it. The various avenues for education, work, shopping, interacting with distant loved ones, and “attending” family events were a lifeline for millions.
Zoom, one of the most popular platforms for remote student learning and office meetings, reached its peak value in April 2020 with over 300 million daily users. Its revenue for fiscal year 2020 was $622.7 million, and its highest stock market valuation, already in March 2020, was $40.5 billion.
We are, however, all aware of the dangers and challenges of technology and the Internet. Technology Awareness Group (TAG), locally and internationally, was at the forefront of supporting our community when so many adults and youngsters were suddenly faced with the need to be connected online or by phone, in more ways and for more hours than ever before.
TAG Lakewood usually handles about 1,000 walk-in visits per week, with a total of about 5,000 per week (in addition to remote and phone consults) in other communities around the world. Even while already short-staffed, and those limited staff members alternated being out sick with corona themselves, TAG did not close for even a day.
“People who get a new device and then get it ‘TAGged’ often feel like they are giving something up,” explains Rabbi Moshe Drew, International Director of TAG. “This year, they felt like TAG was doing them a favor.”
Before Pesach until Shavuos, when all local yeshivos switched to phone learning for the rest of the school year, there was a rush to obtain devices as each child needed his or her own phone line to “attend” classes. In that time, TAG went into overdrive, blocking approximately 35–40,000 flip phones internationally.
At their drive-up service, one rav, after waiting almost an hour for his turn, noted that he was so inspired by the amount of people willing to pay money to block their Internet, that he felt the kedushah as if he was at the Kosel, and was “looking for a place to put a kvittel.”
With many parents suddenly working from home, TAG installed 1,000 new home filters. They also opened a special “corona hotline” for several thousand first-time filter users, whose calls were answered by rabbanim who dispensed chizuk and guidance.
With TAG operations back to normal, Rabbi Drew cautions parents that even if new devices are blocked, they are like “mini-computers” and should be put away.
Parents and educators were rightfully concerned about their children’s increased screen time and decreased socialization. While 8 million American students started the school year with remote learning, our local yeshivos have thankfully remained open since the fall. Rabbi Drew says that while we are still dealing with the “aftermath” and “it will take a few years to fully get past it,” it could’ve been “much worse.”
Some mechanchim felt that while we only “lost” a few months in school, the lack of consistency was detrimental to sequential skills such as kriyah. They have seen a variety of reactions; some bachurim fell while others had “tremendous aliyah” from learning at home, feeling the achrayus upon themselves to grow. One balabus made a siyum on a “corona masechta,” a proud first-time achievement.
Rabbi Yehuda Ari Mintz, menahel of Lakewood’s Bnos Chaim Seminary, explains, “We had to be resourceful” to meet the needs of students both during the lockdown and afterward. The dedicated staff held teleconferences and sent packages for students to enjoy at-home Shabbatons. For the current school year, while Eretz Yisrael has endured numerous lockdowns and travel restrictions, Bnos Chaim became the address for over a dozen students who found themselves on this side of the ocean. While larger classes of 40 students are not ideal, they made exceptions for this year to facilitate the increased need. They have supplemented instruction with small, interactive workshops, additional Shabbatonim, and even overnight retreats during the week to strengthen the bonds among students. For the coming year, they are seeing “more applications than ever before.”
The world of Jewish outreach is usually dependent on social events to engage students and members: group classes, Shabbatonim, and trips to Israel, all of which have been forced to stop this year. But those devoted to the future of Klal Yisrael immediately created new kinds of experiences to maintain and even increase their attendance. Virtual shiurim, interactive seminars, and challah bakes drew more attendees than ever before, with global and 24-hour access to a plethora of expert educators and resources.
As Mrs. Rivka Kirwan, Director of Communications at Oorah, explains, “We’ve had to pivot in order to remain effective at reaching our families…especially since the families we help live in many communities nationally…and COVID restrictions vary.” Oorah held virtual camp reunions and activities and sent more packages full of fun and meaningful material to kids and families for Yom Tov, “to keep our connection with them strong.”
In an amazing and positive twist, “During the pandemic, we saw a historic rise in interest in switching kids from public to private schools, as yeshivos and day schools were often far better equipped than local public schools to return to in-person learning safely and with proper precautions. We capitalized on this trend…with the help of our school placement and tuition assistance program. B’ezras Hashem…over 400 new students transferred from public school to yeshiva.”
Partners in Torah proudly arranged over 5,600 new learning partnerships around the world. Project Inspire, a program of Aish HaTorah, hosted several weekly shiurim and programs with thousands of weekly viewers from across the world and across the spectrum of observance.
TorahAnytime, “the largest library of originally recorded Torah videos in the world,” reached a milestone in early 2021 with 1.2 million users and 130,000 phone listeners just this past year. They hosted programs in coordination with many other organizations, becoming the go-to site for a wide variety of growth and connection during a time of confusion and distance.
As we mourn our losses and try to move forward living with a new normal, there is no clear end in sight. While the miraculously quick development of the vaccines gives us hope for beating the virus, new variants from around the globe are causing more cases and deaths. Let’s continue to daven for a refuah sheleimah for all those impacted and beg Hashem to swiftly remove this mageifah from our midst. We will always remember our experiences during this time, yet we long for the days that COVID-19 will become relegated to the history books.
By the numbers
Totals as of January 30, 2021
Sources: CDC.gov, OCHD.org, covid19.nj.gov
|Vaccines Administered to Date