Ultra-Orthodox rabbis in north London have issued unprecedented guidance on the eve of the Jewish festival of Purim in a bid to avoid a repeat of last year’s celebrations that led to a huge spike in Covid infections.
The advice was issued by the Office of the Rabbinate of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations in the form of a notice to be displayed in synagogues and shared on WhatsApp groups before the 24-hour festival, which starts at sundown on Thursday.
The chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, also released a video plea on Twitter, saying last year’s “tragic” events must not be repeated. He urged people to deliver mishloach manos – traditional gifts of food to family and friends – by leaving parcels on doorsteps and stepping back to a safe distance.
Purim, which marks the survival of Jews threatened with extermination in Persia in the fifth century BC, is a carnival-like festival, featuring fancy dress, music, dancing and large amounts of alcohol. Jews attend synagogue to hear readings from the Book of Esther, families gather for a celebratory meal, and charity collections are made door-to-door and on the streets.
Last year, Purim was celebrated two weeks before the first Covid lockdown, but when virus infections were already rising. In the following weeks, the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community in Stamford Hill in north London was particularly hard hit with hospitalisations and deaths. A study by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine earlier this month found that almost two-thirds of ultra-Orthodox Jews in London contracted Covid-19 last year – up to nine times higher than the national average, and one of the highest rates in the world.
This year, rabbis in the community have said the number of people on the streets should be minimised and people should not enter each other’s homes. In a break with custom, religious students will not tour the area in vans to make charitable collections.
The seudah Purim, the festive meal, “should be confined to close family members only. Last year’s large events took place before anyone was aware how the virus would spread and might have been responsible for many people becoming unwell,” the rabbis said.
In a significant footnote to their notice, they add: “We wish to stress the importance to adhere to the government Covid-19 guidance.”
The new messaging on Covid from the rabbis comes after police discovered an illegal wedding attended by 150 people at a Haredi girls school in Stamford Hill last month. Community leaders condemned the event, but it emerged that lockdown rules were being regularly flouted in Haredi communities, with large weddings taking place several times a week.
Last week, a senior ultra-Orthodox rabbi said such weddings should stop. “Weddings are very central in Judaism… There is a great need and a great urge to have weddings – but we need to put the brakes on,” said Rabbi Herschel Gluck.
Rabbis in major synagogues in the area have also given sermons on the importance of observing government guidelines.
The eight-day Passover festival, which begins on 27 March, is also likely to be constrained by Covid rules. Last year, it was the first major religious occasion to take place under lockdown, quickly followed by Easter and Ramadan.