The supermarkets here in Israel are fully stocked, with shelves bulging. But I’m steering clear because I don’t want an SMS from Shin Bet.
As friends back in Britain say they can’t get the ingredients to make a cake, supplies here are piled high, at least for now. Israel’s panic buying phase passed quickly.
Yet every culinary choice comes with a calculation. Is it worth the chance of getting a text message from the authorities? We get an exemption from rules keeping us within 100 meters of home to go shopping, but the powers that be are tracking our movements.
They use advanced technology to determine if we were anywhere near somebody infected with coronavirus, and if you were, a text message will arrive a few hours or days later ordering you in to compulsory quarantine.
If this happens, the small departures from home permitted by the current lockdown rules, like a 100 meter wander in each direction of your front door, are snatched away. For two weeks you are subject to house calls from police to check you are staying home, and fines if you aren’t.
One of the most heavily-quarantined neighbourhoods in the country over the last fortnight happened to be a popular landing pad for Brits who make aliyah. In the Kaiser section of Modiin, all it took was a handful of infected people — one in a synagogue on Purim, another in a school ,and so on — to put thousands in quarantine.
As the many British olim there read Julia Donaldson to their kids on loop and tried to get their parents back in the UK to e-babysit via video chat for long enough to snatch a tea break, they started to discover a peculiar thing, which is now becoming evident to many others as the lockdown for the general population has intensified. That as the coronavirus crisis shrinks our world, even down to the space within our four walls, it simultaneously grows our world too.
Unable to see local friends face-to-face, it’s suddenly equally logical to talk to old friends back in Britain as it is to video chat with the neighbours who we normally see daily. If you are going to take part in a Jewish community “event” — a lecture or workshop — via Zoom videoconferencing, it could just as easily be from the UK congregation you grew up in as the shul around the corner.
But then comes Shabbat, when the religiously-observant power down their devices, and human contact becomes limited for 25 hours to the people in their immediate surroundings. It is intensely isolating for many, though it can have its sweet moments. Last Friday night, in some places, people spontaneously went to their individual balconies, and started singing the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers together. One moving video from Jerusalem, filmed by a Reform man with Orthodox neighbours, showed people of very different religious stripes singing together.
In other neighbourhoods, people have become so zealous about socially-distanced balcony-to-balcony prayers that they make arrangements by WhatsApp and plan their melodies. One friend reported receiving invitations to several different balcony services. Which is, of course, the most Jewish crisis response possible. Not only do prayers continue, but we still ensure that we still generate enough choices so that as well as having a service to “attend,” we have a “shul” that we don’t go to.