That day in May: ‘Congregants were dying alone’

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That day in May: ‘Congregants were dying alone’

Rabbis across London reflect on what they were doing on 20 May 2020, the day staff at Number 10 held a ‘bring your own booze’ party

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a statement ahead of Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Picture date: Wednesday January 12, 2022.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a statement ahead of Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Picture date: Wednesday January 12, 2022.

Rabbis across London have been recalling what they were doing on 20 May 2020, the day now revealed to have been the date of the notorious Downing Street garden party. And several said they found it “very disappointing” that not everyone seemed to have abided by the rules which restricted everyone else.

Woodford Forest’s Rabbi Mordechai Wollenberg said that Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, at the start of the lockdowns against the pandemic, had reminded his rabbis that they “were in the public eye, and had to be role models. It was a very difficult time. We were scrupulous about what we did, and in some ways I would say went above and beyond what was required, precisely because we were in the public eye”.

Rabbi Wollenberg’s own son, Yisrolik, had had to have his barmitzvah on Zoom, and his grandparents could not celebrate with him. “We did this because we thought we were all in the same boat. Clearly, now, the message is that we were not all in the same boat.”

In his own shul, Rabbi Wollenberg said, there were people in hospital and even though he is a hospital chaplain, “I could not visit and people were dying alone”. From the Downing Street revelations, he said, he took a message of “what it means to be a leader, and how behaviour can undermine things”.

The Wollenberg family pictured in their shul for a documentary with Stacey Dooley

Rabbi Steven Dansky, in Ilford — where he is minister of Cranbrook Synagogue — went through an excruciating period in 2020, at times burying between two and five people a week. Overall his synagogue lost around 150 members and in one week, before Pesach, he said he had buried “four people on one day and another four the next. And then we had to sit down to seder and I couldn’t say anything, I just couldn’t speak”.

He believed people in his congregation would be “quite angry” over the news of the Downing Street events. “Everyone here was trying to take care and protect themselves, and not see their loved ones. Barmitzvahs were completely out”. Not all the deaths in his synagogue were due to Covid, he said, but a large proportion were; and even today, “people who were due to have important operations have found them postponed again”.

In Chigwell, Rabbi Boruch Davis recalled “standing outside a hospital” with a family who couldn’t be with their dying relative. He said: “It was pretty simple. We were mid-lockdown and there were no shul services except on Zoom. I wasn’t conducting funerals myself because I am over 60 and vulnerable; but I delegated them to my colleague (Rabbi Rafi Goodwin) and the funerals were tiny. Shivas were only taking place on Zoom”.

Pesach that year, he said, was “horrendous, as it was for many rabbis. We had 45 deaths in the first 18 months of Covid and once I had to send out death notifications of four people in one email, when usually it would have been one email per person”. Not all the deaths were due to Covid but there had been “collateral damage” wherein people “were reluctant to visit their GP or hospital until it was too late”.

Additionally, he said, Chigwell had “a number of members who had been furloughed and did not know if they would have a job to go back to”. A look at his 2020 diary revealed a day “full of Zoom meetings” — and Rabbi Davis also said that because of financial uncertainty the shul had had to put a major redevelopment programme on hold.

Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence, in Finchley Synagogue, said that his calendar for May 20 2020 showed “a member who went to a funeral in Leicester and [that person’s] shiva in the evening”, plus a second funeral which he attended in Bushey.

Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence

He said: “We were, as a community, dealing with a very heavy pastoral burden and were particularly sensitive to the fact that families who were bereaved were having to endure their grief with restrictions on the numbers who could attend funerals and shivas.

“Important life cycle events had to be put on hold: the ability of couples to wed and set up home together, the long-planned celebrations that had to be deferred, and, as religious leaders, we supported the necessity to curtail our normal and religious lives — in the interests of public health”.

Rabbi Lawrence said the “emotional wear” on the rabbinate — as with many other professions — had been “very heavy indeed”.

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