Making the Most of Chabad Situation

Upper East Side congregation closes, but online learning continues

23 Mar 2020 | 12:07

The decision to close the Chabad Upper East Side was not an easy one for Rabbi Ben Krasnianski, as he told his congregation in an email titled Urgent Update:

“For Jews who kept synagogues open during the worst years of the Stalinist persecution this decision was not taken lightly. With the rampant spreading of the disease, however, we can no longer safeguard the life and health of all our community members especially those who are most vulnerable,” he wrote.

While many of the city’s synagogues have been on high alert since the coronavirus first appeared in New York — now the “epicenter” of the COVID-19 pandemic — the situation became untenable last week.

Krasnianski’s email followed the closure Tuesday of the World Headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn for the first time in its 80-year history. The shutdown followed estimates that as much as 80 percent of Crown Heights’ Orthodox community may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus, based on self-reported data collected by a local doctor.

Krasnianski, who spent part of the 1980s in the Soviet Union leading underground seders, calls the current global standstill “a Chernobyl moment,” a crisis that could lead to positive change farther down the line.

Despite the closures, Chabad Upper East Side is continuing its scripture and prayer classes over the internet, using WhatsApp and Zoom.

“People are sitting at home, the offices are closed, this was a perfect opportunity to connect them to study. People are really to looking to connect and to be inspired. You know, you hear all the gloom and doom and you want to hear something with a little silver lining,” Krasnianski told Straus News.

Disappointment briefly creeps into his voice when he mentions Passover. With the synagogue set to remained closed into April, Chabad UES will forego its popular Pesach Seder. The rabbi brightens, however, as he draws a historic parallel.

“The last night before they left Egypt, every Jew was quarantined. They were told to stay indoors at home: ‘Stay with your family. Enjoy the paschal. Have a Seder with your family.’ It's really about the family, which is really the nucleus of society.”

By refocusing during this time apart from the daily grind of work and consumerism, Krasnianski hopes that more Jews will look inward and connect with their drive to create positive change.

“Maimonides quoting the Talmud teaches us that we're always obligated to view ourselves and the whole world being an equal scale, and all it takes is one good deed. That's all, one good deed—not only an action, even speech or even a positive attitude—to tip the scales and bring redemption and transform human consciousness for the whole world,” the rabbi explained.

“I really believe it,” he said later. “It may seem invisible, right? But this invisible microbe nobody could see and one person turned the whole world upside down.”