Cry freedom! Community primed for life after lockdown
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Cry freedom! Community primed for life after lockdown

From the reopening of shuls to summer holidays in Israel, here's how British Jews are preparing for Covid restrictions to be lifted in the coming months.

This week the PM announced the  reopening of British society in the weeks and months ahead, so we’ve been asking what this means for Jewish life.

From the unlocking of synagogues to invitation to old friends for Friday night dinner and booking flights to Israel, the government has given us dates and hopes. In so doing, it has prompted much planning, but is this a run or a walk?

How might it affect the backbone of Jewish life in the UK – the culture centres, the simcha venues, the synagogues that have been gathering dust?

Ellie Jacobs and Joshua Salisbury asked these very questions and heard that – for many – what’s most important is the easing of restrictions safely…

 

SYNAGOGUES 

Outdoor socialising over Purim gets a big welcome

Mill Hill United synagogue under Covid restrictions, including social distancing and masks (Credit: Marc Morris)

Synagogue leaders have welcomed news of some outdoor socialising with family members over Pesach but say social distancing measures will remain in place for some time.

“The situation remains very serious and so all United Synagogue social distancing measures will remain in place,” said Steven Wilson, chief executive of the United Synagogue. “We will continue to assess and be led by the data and provide guidance for our communities in due course, as we have done for the past 12 months.”

Wilson urged members to celebrate festivals safely despite “the optimism provided by the vaccines”. Echoing comments by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, he said those able to attend a Megillah reading must follow full social  distancing guidelines.

Other synagogue groups have not yet commented on what Boris Johnson’s announcement might mean for in-person services. Among those still digesting what the prime minister’s road plan means was the Masorti movement, whose leadership held an initial meeting on Tuesday.

 

SPORT

Maccabi will fix dates after Pesach

Maccabi GB’s Community Fun Run in 2019 (Blake Ezra)

Maccabi said it hopes to resume its leagues by the second week in April as it hailed the announcement as a chink of sunlight for its schools PE programmes.

David Wolff, chairman of Maccabi GB Southern football league, said he hoped to resume by 11 April, with the season finishing at the end of June if given the go-ahead by the Football Association. 

“Everybody wants to get out of their house, everybody’s chomping at the bit so there should be a lot of enthusiasm to restart, I’d hope,” he told Jewish News.

Maccabi runs 29 teams in three divisions up and down the country, but needs to wait until after Pesach and guidance from the FA before a date is firmly fixed.

“Before we can resume, we’ve got to get the advice from the FA, we’re just waiting for that,” he said.

Maccabi, a Jewish sports charity, can resume its schools outreach activities from early March, which has been hailed as good news by CEO Ashley Lerner.

“As the sun is shining, there’s hope,” he said. “We’re delighted, the fact that schools are opening means we can run our PE lessons in schools.

“Speaking as a father and as CEO, physical activity is really important. They’re all delighted to be getting out and about.

“It’s not all at once, there’s a gradual process. We’re still looking at what it means for us in terms of events. The big one for us is the community fun run.”

The event is still pencilled in for June, he said, but is dependent on what restrictions are in place in the summer.

 

CARE HOMES

Designated visitors and caution at Jewish care

Jewish Choice residents with a staff member. The Brent-based home as announced it is closing its doors due to the financial pressures of the pandemic

Care homes suffered greatly as a result of the virus. According to the Care Quality Commission, 24,919  residents in care homes died with Covid-19 involvement between 10 April 2020 and 29 January 2021.

Since 6 January, many homes have stayed shut to all but end-of-life visits. But on Monday, the government said that, from 8 March, residents can have one relative or friend to visit and help with personal care, washing and dressing.

Jewish Care told this newspaper that it has laid out a proposed plan for each of its residents to have a designated visitor, who will be able to visit, indoors, wearing personal protective equipment and with whom they may finally hold hands.

Daniel Carmel-Brown

CEO Daniel Carmel-Brown said he was “delighted” the guidelines were encouraging social contact and recognise the “impact of prolonged separation from loved ones and the need to allow visiting in care homes”.

The provider said it will be taking extreme precautions, such as requiring visitors to answer a number of questions before they can enter the home, have their temperature tested, and will need to have a negative Covid-19 test on the day of the visit.

“We will follow the cautious approach suggested by the government with regards to the lifting of restrictions. 

“It is vital that by facilitating individual visits, we do not compromise the safety of residents and staff, and that we continue to do all we can to keep Covid-19 out of our homes.”

One care home that will not be making long-term plans is Jewish Choice in Brent. The home, which started as Beth Holim in 1747, announced it must close its doors amid  the financial impact of  the pandemic.

Schools

Delight at being given priority

Pupils in a playground

Despite facing some opposition from teaching unions, schools will reopen on 8 March.  

Regarding Boris Johnson’s decision to allow all pupils in England to return, Rabbi David Meyer, executive director of Partnerships for Jewish Schools (PaJes) said he was “delighted” schools have been prioritised for reopening and that they have “been given a proper lead time to prepare for their return”.  

But he expressed concerns about the test and trace system. “PaJeS is liaising with the government and continues to support schools as they work towards reopening.” 

Kirsten Jowett, chief executive of the Jewish Community Academy Trust (JCAT), which comprises Wolfson Hillel in Enfield, Hertsmere JPS and Rimon Primary and Sacks Morasha in Barnet, was ready to “welcome our pupils with open arms”, but is remaining “cautiously optimistic” about reopening.  

JFS head Rachel Fink said the school is to operate a “phased student return” from 8 March.

 

Simchas

Couples reschedule their wedding dates

Wedding in pre-Covid times. (Blake Ezra)

Soon-to-be married couples have begun to reschedule their weddings in the hope social distancing requirements will be scrapped by the planned date of 21 June.

Those involved in the planning of simchas told Jewish News enquiries have jumped in expectation of social distancing rules ending in summer.

“People have gotten much more optimistic,” said Jonathan Robinson, who runs simcha business Jasmine Catering. “People have been rushing to reschedule their weddings until after 21 June.”

Wedding planner Michelle Jacobs said: “Our phones and inboxes are buzzing. I for one am very excited to be getting back to planning weddings.” 

Others, however, struck a note of caution. “I think it’s too soon to say,” said Jeremy Freedman, who runs Freedman Photography, which photographs simchas including barmitzvahs. “I don’t know if people will be putting plans into place until they see proper relaxing of the lockdown.”

ARTS

Theatres and venues ‘need more certainty’

Israeli star Dan Raichel performing two intimate piano concerts at JW3

Theatres and cinemas will reopen from 17 May. West End producer Kenny Wax, who last July was forced to halt a planned tour of Six The Musical at drive-in venues around England owing to Covid concerns and local lockdowns, said the government’s plan was “tremendously encouraging”, albeit there were still significant financial concerns for the industry.

Kenny Wax

He said: “The news was tremendously encouraging, but I’m not going to get carried away until we have a little more certainty. It’s impossibly expensive and damaging to public confidence to open a show and then shutter again for 10 days if there are positive cases in the company with the risk of that cycle being repeated two weeks later. We need to be sure that our company members are as safe as they can be and while planning for the earliest scenario we have to make contingencies for later dates.”

JW3’s Raymond Simonson said his organisation “was working hard to finalise plans for reopening our physical spaces again”. Recognising how important the space is to the community, he said when the JW3 was allowed to open in the summer/autumn “many people were extremely emotional when they returned for the first time in nine or more months”. 

Yet Simonson admitted it was “not going to be an easy year for JW3 or any other venue-based organisation” and said it would need to work hard to “continue to protect our people first and foremost, and also our assets and finances”.

 

UNIVERSITIES

Some students will be readmitted to colleges

Pile of books

Universities, too, will be allowed to readmit some students on 8 March. However, the prime minister noted that only those “who would be unable to complete their courses if they did not return to take part in practical teaching, access specialist facilities, or complete assessments’’ would be able to return. However, at the time of publication, the definition of ‘practical’ had yet to be defined. The government said some students would have to wait until the end of the Easter holidays to return.

In a statement to Jewish News, the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) said: “After a year of providing solely digital engagement, we are cautiously excited at the prospect of being able to include some live and in-person activity before this academic year draws to a close. We will continue to follow strict guidelines and will not act hastily or rashly, focusing our efforts on ensuring our students are engaged, but safely.”

Hospitality

‘Restaurant booking sites are buzzing’

Reubens

One of the hardest-hit industries of the pandemic is hospitality. On Monday the government announced that, after four months of closure, ‘outdoor only’ venues will be allowed to open from 12 April, while pubs and restaurants will be permitted to open indoors no earlier than 17 May. With venues closed since December, many businesses worry about future survival. 

Julio Mattera, the owner of kosher restaurant Balagan and manager of Sababa, both in Borehamwood, is concerned about how to get through the next few months. 

While he says Boris Johnson’s statement gave him some hope, “surviving until May is going to be really hard, especially for Sababa, which opened in September.” 

The Balagan team

Mattera says that because of the business’ new status, he was unable to qualify for government grants and is struggling. He says he would like to see the government reinstate the Eat Out to Help Out  scheme “as this will be a really good push for all businesses that are quiet and short of cash flow to start again”.

Nira Workman, chief marketing officer at S Group – a group that oversees 10 kosher restaurants across London, says they have “mixed feelings” about the government’s proposals. While they “simply cannot wait to welcome back our dear customers” they really hope the latest lockdown is the last and so would rather “wait an extra month or so” until more people are vaccinated “for the sake of future stability.”

Louisa Walters, founder of The Restaurant Club and The Catering Club, says restaurant booking platforms were “abuzz on Monday, with outside tables being snapped up all over London”. 

Louisa Walters

But she said that “cancellations have been coming through as for many restaurants it simply won’t be viable to open with outdoor seating only and they have now closed off their booking platforms”.

 However, she says there is still “plenty of optimism” as people plan ahead with enquiries for “restaurant private rooms’’ and “caterers for small events at home”.

Rob Laub at The Bull in Highgate, who invested heavily in covers and heaters for his two large outdoor spaces, said he has taken “loads of bookings including one for a birthday for 30 people later in the year”.

 

TRAVEL

We should be packing our bags by July

Ben Gurion Airport

Jewish travel agents have seen a sudden increase in enquiries since the prime minister’s announcement.

Anthony Gothold, managing director of Travelink in Hendon, said the past 11 months had been the most difficult he had ever experienced in 40 years in the industry. “But since the announcement yesterday where there’ll be potentially allowed tourism from 19 May, we’ve seen a number of enquiries,” he said. 

“It feels like we’ve turned a corner. They want to reserve, so we’re encouraging that. But I’m not bringing back all my staff until I know for certain.”

Most of those enquiries are for Israel, he said, because people feel safer as “the vaccination programme is going so well”.

David Segel

David Segel, of West End Travel, which has branches in South Hampstead and Edgware, said he thought overseas travel would resume from this summer.

“I reckon, pin your hopes on July,” he said. “The market will come back, because people want to go abroad. I do see a chink of daylight for the first time, because we’ve got a little bit of a roadmap. There will be a good trickle of passengers this year, emotional travel and essential travel.”

However, he said he thought it would take until 2023 for the travel industry to get fully back to normal.

Both said uncertainty showed the need for travel agents, as those who booked their own hotels or travel had found it harder to get refunds when flights or hotels were cancelled.

Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein last week opened the door for an ‘air corridor’ arrangement between the UK and Israel in time for summer, telling ITV’s Robert Peston: “I sincerely hope that by holiday season, it will be in our mutual interests to open the borders with the so-called green passports.”

 

Aliyah

People left ‘in limbo’ after confirming plans

Landing in Israel after making aliyah

This week’s news of a path back to normality was little consolation to those hoping to make aliyah who have been left in limbo after selling their homes and leaving their jobs..

Israeli citizens have also been left stranded in the UK, as rescue flights are only being offered from Frankfurt, after Israel closed
its airspace.

A group of those affected have sent letters in protest both to the Transport Minister Miri Regev and Ambassador Tzipi Hotovely, demanding direct rescue flights from London. 

Yaniv Ben-Dahan, an Israeli citizen who owns a business in Manchester, has not been able to see his wife and children in Israel for nearly three months. He flew to the UK in December before catching Covid, leaving him ill for six weeks. In that time, Ben Gurion airport closed, leaving him trapped. “I’m not able to see my kids and wife – it’s been like an eternity.  I can’t work here, shops are closed, there’s nothing for me to do,” he said.

Each time he gets permission from the government to fly back home, the flights are already gone, he said. “They should be operating rescue flights all over Europe,” he argued. 

Yaniv Ben-Dahan has not seen his family for nearly three months

Brits hoping to make aliyah to Israel also feel abandoned, with one family telling Jewish News they were living out of suitcases because they had rented out their home ahed of the move. “Our tenants moved into the house, but we were still here so we had to move out,” said one London father of five. “We’ve been living out of suitcases with three kids in friends’ spare rooms. We’re homeless in our country.”

Another woman has become so desperate she and her husband are considering chartering their own private plane to get to Israel. “We’re in limbo,” said the semi-retired management consultant from London. “Everything has been put in order to move, and then undone, and then redone, you’re on tenterhooks 24/7.”

Israeli embassy spokesman Ohad Zemet said: “Since the start of the pandemic and even more so since the last restrictions, embassy staff have been in touch with the Israeli and Jewish community in London,” he said. “We witness the difficulties some have been experiencing and we hope the situation will improve.”

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