Baltimore Community Experiences Historic Lockdown in Response to Coronavirus

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The Jewish Museum of Maryland is closed as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.

Across the Baltimore Jewish community, everything is quiet.

Major synagogues like Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and Chizuk Amuno Congregation have shut down and moved online, and gatherings of 50 or more people are prohibited throughout the entire state. County Executive John Olszewski Jr. even provided police with the authority to enforce the limit, effective March 18.


“The uncertainties and isolation of this current situation are unlike anything that I have ever experienced,” said Howard Libit, Baltimore Jewish Council executive director.
Baltimore County Councilman Israel “Izzy” Patoka said that the only time he has seen anything similar was when he worked in the governor’s office and had to prepare information about the H1N1 virus.

“If we abide by the guidance that we’re receiving from health officials, then we will minimize the time that we will have to live in these conditions,” said Patoka.

It’s an uneasy time facing the community, and families don’t know what to expect next.

Even those experiencing tragedy are facing uncertainty. At Sol Levinson & Bros. Inc., the funeral home has stopped holding public funerals for the first time in nearly 130 years of its existence. Funeral services going forward will be private indefinitely.

“Thankfully, for services in our chapel we already have video webcasting in place and the general public will be able to view and listen to funerals,” said Matt Levinson, president at the funeral home. “Those videos are on our website for six months following the funeral.

Families may also elect to have a private graveside service.” He also recommends that shivas be private.

“Our clients understand what’s happening and the decisions we have to make,” Levinson said.

His management team is meeting every few days to stay updated and continue to operate.

On March 15, all three locations of the Baltimore area JCCs closed. JCCs rarely close; previous reasons have included water main breaks, severe weather, and bomb threats. The JCC is developing virtual options to engage members and will continue to update its social media with new resources.

In a historic move, the Maryland General Assembly cut session early for the first time since the Civil War, according to the Baltimore Sun. It ended three weeks early, March 15. As the political voice of Baltimore’s Jewish community, the BJC had to recalibrate.

“There’s no question that some of our priorities in the Maryland General Assembly will be impacted,” said Libit. “The budget is still being worked on, so we will have to see how it turns out by Wednesday, [March 18].”

He is pleased that the redevelopment of Pimlico is still a priority for legislative leaders and is optimistic that it will be approved. Libit also believes a couple of bills to combat hate crimes are likely to pass this week. However, he is disappointed that some of the BJC’s efforts to assist seniors seem like they will fall short, “but we understand the circumstances and will come back to the legislature again,” said Libit.

The BJC, whose priorities extend beyond the assembly, has a staff of 10 employees, most of whom are working from home. They are figuring out how to work around event rescheduling, as all BJC events are postponed until mid-April. Even the Yom HaShoah commemoration will be online.

Senior living centers are closed per the state’s prohibition. This includes the Edward E. Myerberg Center and the Weinberg Community for Senior Living. Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital has a ban on visitation as of March 12.

“Never in my lifetime has the imperative to love the stranger felt so alive,” said Cindy Greenberg, Repair the World president and CEO, in a press release. Repair the World anticipates a dramatic increase in clientele and financial need from the community.
As Baltimore City’s almost century-old Beth Am Synagogue moves services online, Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg notes that he’s never seen it close before.

“The closest I can think of is several years ago we had a bat mitzvah scheduled during the Snowpocalypse,” he said. “We were expecting a ton of snow beginning Friday night and continuing throughout the night. We rushed to reschedule the simcha.” Burg invited people to trudge through the snow to his house rather than cancel the service. “The snow was so deep that year kids were able to sled down the front steps of Beth Am on Eutaw Place.”

Even the museum industry is disrupted. The Jewish Museum of Maryland joined the list of closed organizations March 17. It will continue to offer education on its website though, and is even working on an online companion to its “Jews In Space: Members of the Tribe in Orbit” exhibit. This is the first time the museum has closed for such an extensive time, “as far as we can tell in memory of the people who are here, so about 14 years,” according to Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the museum.

While it is a dark time for business, Pinkert is keeping his hopes up. Perhaps as a symbol of hope, his granddaughter was born March 16.

“I am focused on the day we reopen,” he said. “That’s where we will focus on our energy. I want to make us stronger by the time we open again in the summer.”

Some of the other many major event cancellations include Jewish Volunteer Connection’s Good Deeds Day, BHC’s Interfaith Institute, and The Peggy and Yale Gordon Center for Performing Arts’ Signature Event. A rolling list of postponements, cancellations, and closings can be found on JewishTimes.com.

“We just don’t know what to expect or how long it will last,” Libit said. “So we will do our best to work to support the Jewish community and get back to normal life as quickly and safely as possible.”

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