Resolute in our call

Dear coworkers,

Lord hasten the day that “coronavirus” never again appears in our Sunday letter! But until that day it is drastically affecting us all.

Two of the hospitals that perform heart surgeries on Gaza children (Wolfson in Holon and Makassed in East Jerusalem) have stopped accepting children all together. And today Georgia reports that our main partner, the Sheba Medical Center, has closed its cardiac ICU in order to redeploy staff to the corona unit:

So our growing relationship with Hadassah in Jerusalem proves again a godsend. Doctors there on Thursday–even though they’re in the hardest-hit corona city in Israel–made time and space to operate on a little refugee baby from Gaza, beloved Mohammed whose transfer I wrote about in last week’s letter:

The little fighter is doing great post-op, already drinking milk, his hands bandaged to keep him from making trouble.

The coronavirus meanwhile has entered his hometown of Gaza, prompting great fear as 80-90% of ventilators are already in use for other conditions in this tiny strip crowded with two million souls. I don’t sympathize a lot with Hamas leaders, but I could feel the cornered desperation when one this week used the only language he knows: “If ventilators are not brought in, we’ll take them by force.”

Perhaps our hearts will be softer toward Olfat Al Kurd, a Gaza mother working with the respected Israeli human rights group B’tselem (“In the Image”), who writes:

…about a week ago, as I was browsing online news sites, I was struck by the report of the first two corona patients diagnosed in the Gaza Strip. I was in shock. I was overcome with anxiety for my fate, my children’s, my family’s, and all of Gaza’s residents. I went into high alert mode. I stopped working, except in really critical cases. I bought disinfectants, detergents and food, in case total isolation was announced and the markets shut down. I started making sure my family observed strict precautions: no handshaking, no leaving the house, constant hand washing, eating vegetables, taking vitamins…

I see the fear in their eyes, especially my daughter Zeinah, who’s twelve. She says to me, “Mama, don’t go to work. Don’t go visit anyone. Stay with us,” and, speaking for everyone, she declares: “We don’t want to go out. I’m scared of corona!” She has shut herself in her room and leaves only occasionally to wash and disinfect her hands. 

Or we can bring it even closer to home: our own precious Reem, sent back to Gaza six months ago after a long fight for her life in Israel, is still clinging to life in a Gaza hospital on one of those ventilators. Here’s a message from her mother today:

Reem loves you so so much. And O Lord, God will hear you and she will have a beautiful future and also excellent health.

The doctors say there is nothing new. Her condition is the same as it was in the Tel HaShomer [Sheba] hospital. Sometimes she gets very tired, and other times she will stop taking milk (she doesn’t digest food well).

They even tried to remove her from the breathing device but she still needed it.

So friends, the virus that emerged just three months ago in Wuhan is incredibly enough now threatening the availability of health care for refugee children and their families in the far-off, sealed-off Gaza Strip. I thank God there are still doctors in Israel willing to fight for the least of these, and for our team of volunteers willing to fight to get them there.

In the same spirit our daughter Rebekah is now reporting tomorrow to New York Presbyterian to be initiated into their frontline emergency room staff. When her worried mom wondered this week if this was really a good idea, Rebekah’s husband Brad replied sternly:

That’s right, her parents are pretty proud of these two, and would appreciate the prayers of the Shevet community this week for them and their four children.

There still remains the vexing question of whether this is indeed a once-in-a-century pandemic, or a “once-in-a-century evidence fiasco” as Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis put it in an influential essay two and a half weeks ago. For those who are particularly interested, or particularly stressed, I couldn’t more highly recommend spending an hour listening to the good Dr. I. He’s both authoritative and humble, even Pauline as he says “I myself am a champion of errors and mistakes.”

What he pointed out then is still true: until there is testing of the general population (not just those who are symptomatic) we really have no idea how infectious or deadly this virus actually is. The individual stories may be horrifying, but the numbers we’re seeing so far are from a public health perspective not so exceptional. It’s becoming clear this won’t be the pandemic of 1918; we could even be surprised to find it is closer to the epidemic of 2018, which passed over us virtually unnoticed two short years ago.

And finally, the orthodox Jewish columnist Jeff Jacoby is out today with an excellent reflection on the first Passover in millenia in which extended families cannot gather for the seder meal:

…the Haggadah declares that in each generation, Jews must strive to feel as if they themselves had personally had left Egypt. That will be easier to do this year. For the very first Passover also took place under quarantine, during a rapidly spreading plague, with each family alone under its own roof, anxious about the future….

Their anxiety must have been off the charts. People were dying. Panic was everywhere. The beleaguered Israelites, about to exchange a life of enslavement for a grueling slog through an inhospitable desert, knew their lives would never again be the same. On this night of all nights, they must have desperately yearned to be with their grandchildren, their neighbors, their oldest friends.

Yet they were ordered to keep to themselves. And ordered, moreover, to relive the experience every year thereafter — to never forget that moment when everything seemed so bleak, to teach their children that out of the fear and plague and aloneness of that night had come something wonderful: redemption and freedom.

Is this year’s Seder night really so different from Seder nights past? Jews have commemorated Passover under the direst circumstances. There have been pandemics more horrible and lethal than this one. There have been wars and expulsions, blood libels and pogroms…

Despair is never the right answer. This pandemic, too, shall pass.

Jonathan for Shevet Achim

“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133).

Click here to subscribe to receive this weekly Sunday letter by email.