By: Yosef Lemel  | 

COVID-19: A Personal Experience

“Vaya’avor Adonai al Panav Vayikra!” the maskless indoor crowd screams in unison, over 100 Jews worshipping their Creator on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. It’s impossible for me to know when I got the virus, but I suspect it was around that moment. Sensing the unsafe nature of the location I left shul early, feeling a small tinge of guilt as I walked out of those doors, feeling like I left my absolution from sin behind. 

From the outset, I will mention as a disclaimer that this editorial is not meant to evoke any feelings of sympathy for my case; far from it. There are many other cases that deserve “feel better” wishes and kapitloch of Tehillim — besides, as a relatively healthy 21-year old, I never felt any real personal danger from the virus. Rather, I wish to emphasize the practical effects of the virus from various anecdotal points; the virus is not something that we, as a society, should take lightly. 

For most of the pandemic period, I largely stayed isolated from general society, other than the occasional outdoor minyan and walk. As the summer went on, and the pandemic seemed less threatening to me, I started to attend indoor minyanim. By the Yomim Noraim (High Holy Days), it seemed that the threat was non-existent; there were barely any COVID-19 regulations in shul, and I felt comfortable joining an indoor minyan with a mask on that fateful Yom Kippur. 

Just a few days later, on the second day of Sukkos, I started to feel a minor headache, starting a trajectory that defined my life for a month. 

By the time Yom Tov was out, I was out. I traversed from bed, to couch, back to the bed, and to the couch again and finally to the thermometer — 103-degree fever! By then, I, shivering, sweating buckets and beet-red-faced, didn’t have the strength to drive to an urgent care to receive a rapid test; well, that’s apparently what parents are for — gotta love ‘em. 

The visit to the urgent care was quite an eye-opening experience. The attending physician assistant (PA) emphasized that whether I got COVID-19 or not is “all b’dei shamayim (in the hands of heaven), and it “doesn’t matter what we do.” By that logic, would I have gotten sick had I stayed home on Yom Kippur? An interesting idea, I must say! The PA tried to dissuade me from taking the test, arguing that if I tested positive “the numbers in Monsey will go up and then the government will shut the yeshivas down”; it was only after I adamantly and repeatedly requested the test that the PA relented. This PA was just one individual, though I genuinely wonder if there is a trend in the frum community of deflating the numbers. 

The week-and-a-half following the positive test result was mostly a blur. My daily schedule: homework and “Commie” work when I had the strength, and sleeping — or, more accurately, trying to sleep — for the remainder of the day. There weren’t any major headaches or spikes in temperature; the lethargy, however, was draining. The worst part was the isolation. The knowledge that for 10 days, I would have to isolate from society, a society that — as it is — isn’t fully functioning, was a harrowing experience, to put it mildly. During that time period, I heard uncomfortable reports of other individuals in my shul who tested positive soon after Yom Kippur, at least one of whom is currently in critical condition. Since Sukkos, my shul thankfully instituted a mask-mandatory policy; however, there is no doubt in my mind that the minyanim on the Yomim Noraim were “super-spreader” events. 

I expected, after a two-week period, to receive a negative test result, especially since, at that time, I was asymptomatic. Since March, I’ve been looking forward to returning to Yeshiva University and having a real senior-year experience. I booked the first day available, Oct. 21, to come back, with nostalgic dreams of the Shabbosim on campus, the beis medrash, the library, the ping pong tables, the restaurants and the general social scene. Back then, I hoped to dedicate this issue’s editorial as a praise and/or critique of various aspects of the university’s return plan. Alas, that was not to be the case. Once again, I tested positive and my move-in date was delayed to Nov. 2, and yet another 10 days of isolation ensued. 

Though I can’t evaluate the university’s plan because I haven’t been personally affected by it yet, I welcome any student, faculty member or administrator to describe their experiences in these pages. The Commentator is open for well-thought-out praises and critiques of the return to campus. Is the library really a “ghost town?” How does the caf food compare to last year in terms of price and quality? Is there any pre-election fervor (hopefully, this time, with a modicum of civility and no Confederate flag controversies)? I’ll hopefully be back on campus on Monday — I recently tested negative, thank God — but, at this point, I’ve been wondering for weeks what the scene in the Heights is like. 

What’s most important now is following the rules, as The Commentator focused on in its last editorial. Truth be told, as someone who views himself as a relative outsider to the general Modern Orthodox community, I’ve been very impressed with the response from communities such as Teaneck, a locale where many YU students come from. At the very beginning of the pandemic in March, I heard a prominent rabbi in Monsey say that “The thing we need most right now, to combat the magefah (pandemic), is t’filla b’tzibur” (public prayer), a seemingly paradoxical approach, though in line with standard yeshivish dogma; to contrast, during the same time period in Teaneck, the shuls shut down, perhaps stopping a disaster from developing into a catastrophe, or perhaps not. Who knows? But why take the chance? Regulations may reasonably morph as the situation develops, in line with the advice of medical, economic and societal experts, and students should, at the very least, abide by the university’s minimum regulations while, at the same time, enjoying campus life as much as possible. 

There is currently a major crackdown on the Orthodox community from the New York State government, due to a rise in COVID-19 cases. However, we must not, under any circumstance, commit a chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) by violating reasonably-set regulations. As Rav Mayer Twersky, a RIETS rosh yeshiva, put it, “Provocation does not mitigate or excuse a chilul Hashem.” Well, to my fellow students, here’s your chance; don’t mess it up.