Credit: Farragutful via Wikimedia Commons

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This article also appears in our March 20 print issue under the headline “Oy Virus.”

At least four people associated with Ohev Sholom—The National Synagogue have tested positive for coronavirus, according to emails from the synagogue’s leaders to its members.

The Shepherd Park synagogue, which counts more than 350 families as members and is led by the politically active Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, has canceled all services indefinitely, the emails say, and is urging members who gathered at certain events as far back as March 6 to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, another positive case of coronavirus among our members was reported to us last night,” a March 16 email from executive director Monica Wolfe says. “That makes a total of four confirmed cases among our members that we know of.

“Given the limited testing to date, the true total is likely higher,” the email continues. “And anyone who has been to synagogue over the past 14 days should assume that he or she has been exposed – and act accordingly. That means staying at home and refraining from social gatherings, including playdates.”

There were 31 positive cases in D.C. and more than 100 in the DMV area as of Tuesday, and the global pandemic continues to spread throughout the District metropolitan area, with victims connected to the military, schools, hospitals, the courts, and religious institutions. Leaders of those religious institutions have drawn much attention as their decisions hold sway over hundreds, possibly thousands of people seeking to do the one thing authorities are recommending against: gathering together in large groups.

Emails provided to City Paper from March 12 through March 16 reveal leaders of Ohev Sholom’s initial reluctance to completely close their doors, apparently at the advice of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office, their quick reversal in an effort to keep up with rapidly changing and confusing guidance, and one member’s journey from learning of their potential exposure to living under quarantine.

In that five day time frame, for example, the synagogue sent almost daily updates with different guidance, new details of positive cases, and a new schedule for services.

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office declined to talk on the record on March 16 beyond pointing to DC Health’s rule against gatherings of 250 people or more. Later that evening, the rules changed again when Bowser issued an emergency order banning all gatherings of more than 50 people.

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It is unclear when the synagogue’s leaders first became aware that the virus was spreading among its members, and Herzfeld says the past week has been one big blur. “We shared information as soon as possible,” he says.

The emails indicate that the earliest instances of possible exposure to an infected person happened on March 6 and 7 at a gathering to mourn the death of a community member. The synagogue first alerted its community on March 13 and shortly after canceled all services. By March 15, Herzfeld recommended self-quarantine for members who were possibly exposed to the virus.

An email from one of the synagogue’s members, sent to its listserv and shared with City Paper, lays out a detailed timeline of their exposure, testing, diagnosis, and quarantine. The community member declined to speak on the record, and City Paper is not identifying them to protect personal medical information.

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Ohev Sholom’s story starts on March 1, the same day Rev. Timothy Cole, the rector of Christ Church Georgetown and the first known confirmed coronavirus case in D.C., presided over the Sunday morning service.

That evening, the Ohev Sholom community member, who later tested positive for the virus and emailed their fellow congregants about it, had dinner with a friend in town from New Rochelle, New York, for the American Israel Public Affairs Conference. The friend was infected at the time but did not know it, according to the community member’s email to the listserv. In hindsight, the community member believes they probably contracted the virus during this encounter.

The community member first learned of their exposure to the virus on the afternoon of March 6, after a follow-up conversation with their friend from New Rochelle. The community member immediately left their workplace, contacted their doctor, and “spent several hours trying to get in touch with DC public health officials,” according to the listserv email. The advice, according to the community member, amounted to the same advice any person who hadn’t been exposed to the virus would get.

“The DC public health epidemiologists (I spoke with two of them) told me on March 6 that I was ‘no risk.’ (That’s a quote.),” the community member writes in their email. “They said I did not need to self-quarantine or take any particular steps of any kind. They also said that they saw no reason to test me, nor was there any reason for anyone in my family to be doing things other than regular handwashing, etc. As I said, the guidance clearly has been very much in flux.”

The community member writes that they opted to play it safer than D.C. health officials advised and went into self-quarantine at home beginning March 6. That meant distancing themselves from other members of their family but not complete isolation, according to the email.

By March 7, the community member was still not showing symptoms but notified their employer and other contacts “with all the details and guidance we had received.” 

“A couple of days later” they spoke with the synagogue’s leadership, though the exact date is unclear from the email.

“Though we received no instruction to do so, my entire family began self-quarantine at that point,” the community member writes. By March 11, the individual had a cough but no fever and got tested for coronavirus at their doctor’s recommendation.

The next morning, March 12, an email from Herzfeld and other leaders announced that after “speaking directly with the Mayor’s office,” they were canceling all social gatherings of 30 people or more. But the Saturday morning Shabbat service scheduled for March 14, which typically draws 100 to 200 people, would still go on, the announcement said. The only change was that the service would start at 8:15 a.m., an hour earlier than normal.

“We strongly encourage people to follow the guidelines of DC Health in determining if it is appropriate for you to attend services,” the email says.

At this point, Bowser had declared a public health emergency and DC Health recommended against non-essential mass gatherings of 1,000 people or more. Although the synagogue could technically comply with the guidance to avoid gatherings of 1,000 people or more, Herzfeld says he called the mayor asking for clarification.

“Earlier we were following the city’s guidelines, and the city never told anybody to close,” Herzfeld says. “Then we called up the mayor and said ‘what should we do?’ That was Thursday afternoon. She said ‘it would be best to close.’”

Herzfeld emailed his members the following morning, less than 12 hours after canceling only some gatherings.

Twenty-five minutes later, Herzfeld sent another email notifying the community that an unidentified attendee of its Shabbat service on March 7 tested positive for coronavirus.

“It is our understanding that the congregant was in the synagogue for less than one hour, that the congregant was not symptomatic at that time, and that close contacts have been informed,” the email, signed by Herzfeld and Maharat Ruth Friedman, says.

On March 14, the community member received their positive test result and immediately notified the synagogue’s leadership, according to their email to the listserv. The person also moved from “home quarantine” to “home isolation.” They now stay in a bedroom and are “monitored by government authorities via various telehealth check-ins to ensure isolation,” their email to the listserv says.

On Sunday afternoon, March 15, the synagogue’s leaders sent an update that alerted their congregants to “at least 3 confirmed positive cases among our members.”

The email indicates that on March 7, a person attended a service in the main sanctuary from 10:15 to 11 a.m. and started to show symptoms later that day. Another person attended shiva, a gathering to mourn a death, typically at a residence, on the evening of March 7, but did not show symptoms until two days later, according to the synagogue’s email. The third person attended a shiva gathering on the morning of March 6 and since then “has been quarantined at home,” according to the synagogue’s email. City Paper could not confirm whether the third person referenced in the synagogue’s email is the community member whose diagnosis is detailed here.

“The most important take-away is that the virus has certainly reached our community and that it is imperative for all of us to practice social distancing measures,” Ohev Sholom leaders write in the March 15 email.

Later that evening, at 10:16 p.m., the synagogue emailed its members again after consulting with medical professionals and recommended anyone who attended the shiva gatherings on Friday morning, March 6, and Saturday night, March 7, should self-quarantine until March 20 or 21.

“We apologize for the shifting guidance, but recommendations are being frequently revised and updated based on experience in the field,” the email says. “Please contact your health provider if you need additional medical advice.”

Before noon the following day, March 16, the synagogue emailed again, alerting its members to a fourth case.

The community member’s email arrived about an hour later, encouraging communication and transparency. 

“News about coronavirus should not be a secret!” they write.

The community member writes that they have mild symptoms, including a cough but no fever, and spend hours each day on the phone with D.C. public health authorities.

“As the virus expands, I cannot imagine that this degree of monitoring is sustainable (as the people with whom I have spoken have acknowledged),” they write. “I am told that after I am symptom-free, I will be tested twice again at 24-hour intervals and then released.”

Authorities are not testing the other people in the household, the community member writes, adding that they expect other members of the household to be released from quarantine in less than two weeks.

“Whether these measures are going to get eased, tightened, or otherwise changed is impossible to know,” they write. “In the meantime, I would like to echo the calls that everyone simply assume at this point that they have been exposed in some way … and take whatever steps to limit your interaction with others.”

In a phone interview Wednesday, Herzfeld says he is still only aware of the four positive cases, but he is certain there will be more. As the pandemic progresses, he says he is relying on guidance from a committee made of doctors who are members at the synagogue and the advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which, if the past week is prologue, could change again. 

This story has been updated to correct when Ohev Sholom leadership found out a member had been exposed to coronavirus.

“Ohev Sholom—The National Synagogue” by Farragutful is licensed under CC 3.0.