marder sits at a table in front of concentric half circles of a very large number of people
Rabbi Janet Marder leading Torah study at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, May 2017. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Coronavirus on Peninsula: Congregation Beth Am cancels events, others wait and see

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With an outsized number of coronavirus cases cropping up in Santa Clara County, Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills has canceled Shabbat services and a Torah study this weekend, in addition to a number of Purim parties.

In an email sent to congregants, the synagogue said it was doing so at the direction of the Santa Clara County Public Health Department’s guidelines. In a March 3 update on its website, the department said that organizations that primarily serve older people should cancel mass gatherings.

Beth Am, which also canceled its upcoming congregational trip to Israel and Greece, is now offering $1000 from its discretionary fund to participants as partial reimbursement. The trip, which was scheduled for this month, cost more than $5,000 per person.

Still, most congregations and Jewish institutions in the region will be proceeding as normal. Of 11 congregations that responded to J., Beth Am was the only synagogue that reported cancellations.

Both the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos and the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto said they were not canceling programs. However, an OFJCC spokesperson did confirm that the organization would be rescheduling two overseas trips to Poland and Israel scheduled for the spring and summer. There have also been disruptions in out-of-town artists visiting the campus.

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Outside of Santa Clara County, other Bay Area synagogues and Jewish organizations contacted have not planned cancellations, including Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa, Urban Adamah in Berkeley and Chabad Jewish Center of Petaluma.

“At this point, we don’t have plans to cancel any of our events (Purim festivities, services etc) but we are monitoring the situation closely as we recognize the situation is fluid and can change quickly,” wrote Randi Fields of Congregation Emanu-El in an email.

JCCSF published a note about its fundraiser taking place tonight, stating that catering staff would take extra precautions. It also urged older adults, who are more vulnerable to the virus, “to use their own judgement about participation.”

On a national level, the Rabbinical Council of America, the country’s largest group of Orthodox rabbis, has released a set of guidelines, including a recommendation to not kiss the Torah or mezzuzahs to prevent the spread of germs. The Rabbincal Assembly, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical association, has issued similar guidelines, including refraining from shaking hands. And in the greater New York region, home to the country’s largest Jewish population, concerns have led to a number of Jewish schools and synagogues canceling Purim celebrations.

Israel banned gatherings of more than 5,000 people on Wednesday, which led to a number of cities canceling Purim events, according to the Times of Israel. Earlier this week Israel instituted precautionary measures considered the strictest in the world, including two-week home quarantine for travelers arriving from several European countries.

As of Thursday afternoon, there were almost 100,000 cases of coronavirus around the world. In the United States, 197 were infected with the virus and 12 people had died.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.