With a Jewish population of about 290,000 people, the United Kingdom is home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the community has mourned hundreds of victims, but has also found a sense of unity and solidarity across the spectrum, as the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BOD) Marie van der Zyl explained, while the government stated that places of worships are not going to reopen before July.
As the coronavirus crisis began to emerge in the country in March, news about community members and leaders succumbing to COVID-19 rapidly surfaced.
“For us it has been a tough year,” van der Zyl said, pointing out that several factors might have contributed to the high number of victims, including the community members’ higher average age and the tendency to live in big cities and in particular, London, which has been the epicenter of the pandemic in the UK.
The UK has so far confirmed over 240,000 cases and 34,000 deaths according to Reuters. Contrary to what happens in many Jewish communities around the world, the BOD manages to have a fairly accurate idea of how many Jews have died because of the virus.
“As of Tuesday, we registered 470 deaths. We have pretty exact data thanks to the fact that the different Jewish burial societies around the country are reporting to us all those passing away because of the virus, as it is stated in their death certificates,” the president explained, also emphasizing that the authorities have been very cooperative in listening to the concerns of Jewish as well as Muslim leaders regarding burial regulations for COVID-19 victims, after that it was suggested that they would be automatically cremated. Cremation is prohibited according to Jewish tradition.
Van der Zyl also highlighted that in this time of crisis the community is also displaying a renovated atmosphere of unity and solidarity across the geographic and denominational spectrum.
“We are constantly in touch with leaders from different areas and organizations,” she said. “Hardly a night goes by that I’m not attending a virtual meeting or event with a community somewhere in the country.”
“Although the situation is difficult, I think it is important to remember that a crisis should never go to waste. So for example, for the first time in 260 years we held a board meeting online. We even managed to meet the new Labour Party Secretary online. We carry on,” she added.
The financial crisis that is likely to emerge after the health emergency is also considered worrisome. Van der Zyl pointed out that at the moment the safety nets implemented by the British government guarantee that people are mostly not losing their salaries, but in the future many families risk facing problems.
“Many organizations are stepping up to help, charities are working on raising more funds and people have been as generous as they can,” she highlighted.
Another area of concern is the effect of the crisis on the level of antisemitism in the UK.
At the beginning of April, the Community Security Trust, an organization that works to ensure the physical protection of British Jews and among others monitors the antisemitic episodes and discourse both online and offline produced a report dedicated to “Coronavirus and the plague of antisemitism,” featuring several examples of threats or accusations against Jews related to the pandemic that have appeared online.
“I would not say that there has been a spike, but there have been some antisemitic conspiracy theories and last week an individual threatened to bomb the Board of Deputies on Facebook,” van der Zyl said.
While in some countries Jewish life has slowly started or is about to start resuming, the BOD president explained that in the UK, it is still too early to talk about an exit strategy and what it is going to look like for Jewish institutions.
Last week, the government stated that the goal is to reopen places of worship in the third phase of the release from restrictions, which at the moment is not expected to happen before July 4.
On Friday, the government’s ‘Places of Worship Taskforce’ held its first meeting, featuring representatives of several major religious groups in the country, including Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.
“During this pandemic, significant spiritual moments such as Easter, Passover, Ramadan and Vaisakhi when families, friends and congregations traditionally gather together, have been celebrated at home,” commented Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, who hosted the virtual meeting, according to a government’s press release. “I realise how challenging being separated from their communities has been for people of faith. That’s why I have convened the Places of Worship Taskforce to establish how religious practices can safely resume outside the home as soon as possible.”