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Covid-19 impacts the Jewish world

Passover in the time of coronavirus: Cancellations mount at kosher resorts

By Ben Harris

NEW YORK (JTA) – For the past three years, Esther Possick has avoided the hassle of hosting Passover at her Long Island home by traveling to kosher hotels in foreign locales.

In 2017, she spent the holiday at a resort in Stresa, a resort town on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy not far from the Swiss border. The following year she tried out Rimini, a coastal city on the Adriatic. Last year she opted for a program in Spain.

This year, she was planning to spend the holiday at a seafront hotel in Milano Marittima, a resort area three hours southeast of Milan, capped off by a weekend in Rome. But in late February, as Milan became the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in Europe, bringing life in Italy’s second most populous city to a halt, Possick started having second thoughts.

On Monday, March 2, when Possick’s air carrier announced it was suspending flights to Milan, Possick couldn’t hold out any longer.

“I kept saying, OK, this is going to pass. Something is going to change,” Possick told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “But it doesn’t seem to be changing for the better.”

Sunrise in the Canazei area, which hosts a kosher Passover package that is being forced to shut down due to coronavirus concerns. (Credit: Frank Bienewald/Getty Images)

As the coronavirus spreads across the globe, the effects are being felt not only in the public health arena but in business, education and tourism – and a small but significant subset of the Jewish world: Passover vacations.

The eight-day holiday, with its extensive home cleaning preparations and succession of major meals, has emerged as a popular time for getaways. The Passover travel industry has ballooned into a major business, with over 170 programs this year offering kosher meals in nearly every corner of the planet. Jews from Israel, the United States, Europe and elsewhere are willing to pay an often hefty fee to avoid the drudgery and inconvenience of holiday prep.

As of early March, at least three programs – two in Italy and one in Thailand – have been canceled because of the virus. Others are keeping a wary eye on the situation.

“The buzz from consumers has been that they’ve been nervous,” said Doni Schwartz, who runs the website PassoverListings.com, an advertising and review platform for the holiday’s programs. “They’ve put down a lot of money. A lot of them are scrambling for new programs in the U.S.”

Leisure Time Tours, an American operator based in New York, had to cancel its Rome program due to concerns about the coronavirus. The company, which also runs programs in Prague, Florida and New York, was able to transfer some customers to its other hotels while offering full refunds to the rest, managing director Robert Frucher told JTA.

The Israeli operator Gem Kosher canceled its sole Passover program, in Pattaya, Thailand, offering partial refunds to the hundreds of guests who had booked rooms at the Renaissance Pattaya Resort & Spa, 100 miles south of Bangkok. Owner Aharon Lipner said the cancellation was a big financial hit for his company, but he had no choice.

“I don’t want to put any of my guests at even 0.0 percent, at any risk,” Lipner said. “This virus, it is, let’s say, it’s more than just what people know about. It’s much worse.”

In Italy, the European country worst hit so far by the virus, more than a dozen programs are planned for 2020. Several operators said they remain committed to holding their programs and are keeping a close watch on the situation, but others have been forced to throw in the towel.

One is Belinda Netzer, who owns My Kosher Hotel in the Dolomite Mountains of northeastern Italy. The hotel was fully booked throughout the winter ski season through Passover, which begins this year on the evening of April 8.

But the vast majority of Netzer’s clients are Israelis, and after Israel’s national air carrier, El Al, announced in late February that it was halting all flights to Italy, the cancellations started rolling in. That forced Netzer to nix the program. However, she is not canceling another program she is hosting in Rimini, Italy.

“I feel I’m living in wartime,” Netzer said. “It’s like a tsunami mixed with an – I don’t know. It’s like a catastrophe. It’s a really terrible feeling.”

Tour operators that decide to cancel programs typically offer full refunds to their patrons. And industry insiders say that even those that have not canceled are often inclined to return what they can, if only to preserve goodwill among their clientele.

Possick said her operator, Koltuv Events, offered a 50% refund and two years to put the remaining money toward a future program. Koltuv owner Itzhak Sakav told JTA that only about 20 people had canceled this year and over 400 people were still planning to attend the company’s two Italy programs.

Toby Schwartz was planning to attend a Koltuv program in Italy, but she has asthma and her mother is elderly, and they decided not to take the risk. The two decided in February to switch to a Passover program in South Carolina.

“Normally if I was planning a vacation, I’d wait a little to see what would happen,” Schwartz said. “But because it’s Passover, you don’t want to get stuck with no plans.”

For operators like Koltuv that run just one or two programs annually, a single bad year can spell disaster. They typically spend the entire year planning for Passover, which between the logistics of delivering kosher food to exotic locales and the multiple requirements of traditionally observant Jewish travelers is both complicated and pricey.

Profits are often made only on the last 10% to 15% of rooms booked, meaning even a small drop in participation can make a world of difference.

“Often in this industry, those final rooms can be the difference between a loss and a profit,” said Raphi Bloom, the co-owner of TotallyJewishTravel.com, which claims to be the largest Jewish travel site on the internet. “Running a Pesach program is not cheap for the operator. If people are hesitant at this stage, that’s where it could have an effect.”

How one NY school switched to online learning during its coronavirus closure

By Ben Sales

NEW YORK (JTA) – Tobie Brandriss and Bob Goodman, who chair the science department at SAR High School in the Bronx, believe, in Brandriss’ words, that “kids learn science by doing science.”

So it was a challenge for the two biology teachers – and married couple – when their Jewish high school was closed Tuesday and its students quarantined because some of their classmates have contracted the coronavirus. For now, students are attending class via videoconference, which means hands-on lessons are no longer a possibility.

Brandiss grabbed whatever she could at home to illustrate the lessons for which she would have had ample supplies at school. A stretched-out electric cord illustrated the length of a digestive system. A poster of an alligator with its mouth open stood in for the skulls in her classroom. And a six-inch plant held up to her computer’s video camera took the place of the classroom’s tall citron tree, which students can’t tend this week.

“I discovered that the lessons could really be taught interactively, not as lectures,” Brandriss said. “The kids responded, they asked their own questions, they responded to each other. It was wonderful how responsive they were.”

One of SAR’s Zoom sessions Thursday morning included guitar music. (Courtesy of SAR Academy)

Brandiss, Goodman and their colleagues at SAR are among the many educators across the country whose schools are turning to online learning during the coronavirus epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has encouraged schools and districts to prepare for potentially extended interruptions to school attendance, a challenge that could be hard to meet even with ample planning.

For SAR, the interruptions came faster than anyone expected. The school has found itself at the center of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, which has spread through more than a dozen people in and around the Orthodox community of Westchester County. Students and parents from the school, which is in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx to Westchester’s south, are infected. The school is closed until at least March 16.

Amid the uncertainty, SAR has tried to maintain structure by building an extensive remote learning operation in a matter of days. Much of the high school is being run through the videoconference platform Zoom. Teachers are still giving lessons and students are still going to class. Except now it’s through their school-issued iPads while they sit at home.

“It’s remarkable how the dynamic was very natural, organic,” said Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, the school’s principal and a teacher of ninth-grade Talmud, via video chat this week. “It was an eager energy on the part of the kids. … there’s anxiety around what this all means, and having a schedule, being able to connect with their friends, it’s like, this is good. It’s normal.”

Planning for distance learning began last week at the school – during the coronavirus outbreak, but before it came to Westchester. When Rabbi Avi Bloom, the school’s director of technology, found out that the plans would have to go into action in a matter of days, he embarked on a whirlwind of educating the SAR teachers on a number of how-tos: managing a Zoom conference, sharing their screens, and having the students raise their hands virtually or enter a group chat, as well as break into smaller groups within the conference. And more.

“It’s been kind of an insane few days of getting it up and running, and really inspiring. There is a tremendous amount of learning happening, of connecting happening,” Bloom said. 

Unlike SAR, Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy, a pre-K through grade 12 school in Stamford, is currently open, as per the advice of state and local health authorities. However, plans are already in place to conduct classes virtually, should the need arise. 

“Our teachers have planned appropriate and meaningful classes and lessons that students will be able to access through Zoom, Google Classroom and/or email,” BCHA Head of School Jackie Herman assured parents in a letter sent out on March 8. 

Herman is keeping a vigilant eye on the ever-evolving situation and is in constant touch with state and local health authorities. Likewise, she is conscientiously sharing information with parents, encouraging them to contact her with any questions or concerns.  

SAR isn’t alone among Jewish day schools in confronting this challenge – or preparing to confront it. 

Prizmah, an umbrella group for Jewish schools, has received dozens of inquiries in recent days on how to deal with the coronavirus. It set up a detailed information page with examples of letters that schools have sent out, resources for online learning, guidance regarding planning (or canceling) school trips, maintaining child safety during online learning and more.

“The decision-making on when and how to close – that’s the broadest question,” Prizmah CEO Paul Bernstein said. “None of us knows how fast this is going to spread, none of us knows how long closures are going to last.”

SAR isn’t only conducting classes via video chat. Last week, a middle schooler read Torah for his bar mitzvah while students tuned in via livestream. Another of the school’s families is sitting shiva, and friends and family called and video chatted to share condolences with the mourners.

SAR Academy, the lower school, is also using videoconferencing for some classes: Rami Lapin, 11, did Mad Libs with his English class this week and yoga with classmates during a virtual physical education class. The students are also given activities to do themselves at home.

“It was pretty weird with so many other people doing it,” Rami, a fifth grader, said about the yoga class. “So many other people can see you. It’s like, ‘Hmmm, isn’t there a way you could change this?’”

Rami’s mother, Ann, has been able to be home with her kids during the school closure. Along with Rami, she has two daughters, 14 and 16, attending SAR High School. She has let them sit in their rooms – and go to class.

“They’re all Zooming in, they’re almost all staying to the end of a session, even if they go over their time,” she said. “They don’t know how proud I am of how engaged they are.”

Coronavirus updates 

(JTA) – As the Ledger went to press on Monday, March 9, here were some of the breaking news reports regarding the coronavirus and its impact on the Jewish world.

Israel arrivals may be quarantined: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was preparing to decide whether to require anyone arriving in Israel from anywhere in the world to self-quarantine, as the number of Israelis affected by the virus climbed to 39. 

March of the Living in Poland postponed: The International March of the Living said this year’s event, set to take place next month in Poland, will likely be postponed indefinitely. The march is a commemorative annual event that brings together thousands of participants from more than 20 countries at the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

All March Birthright trips canceled:Trips to Israel through Birthright Israel, the program that gives free trips to young adults, have been canceled at least through March. 

Rabbis recite kaddish for quarantine mourners: Tzohar Rabbinical Organization in Israel is helping mourners around the world who are quarantined recite kaddish for loved ones. Mourners can send in details and a Tzohar volunteer will then say kaddish in place of the individual who is not able.

AIPAC coronavirus ramifications continue: A person who was at last week’s AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C. has tested positive for the coronavirus in Los Angeles County. Earlier on Saturday, AIPAC officials said health officials had informed them that two other attendees who have tested positive in New York did not pose risk to others.

Y.U. team plays tournament game with no fans:Y.U.’s men’s basketball team played its first-round NCAA Division III Tournament game against Worcester Polytechnic Institute in an empty gym in Baltimore. Johns Hopkins University, which hosted the game, did not allow spectators in for any of the first- and second-round games taken place at its gym last Friday and Saturday. The game was streamed. One Y.U. student has tested positive for coronavirus and in-person classes and events at the Manhattan-based university’s two college campuses were banned until this week.

Main Photo: 3-D art based in microscope images of the corona virus from the 2020 outbreak in Wuhan, China (Getty Images)



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