Sharon Sabban had just come back to Mexico City after a long weekend at a wedding in the beach resort of Acapulco when she texted friends about meeting up for a coffee. Immediately, they asked if she had heard about the directive published the previous day by the Comité Central de la Comunidad Judía de México (Jewish Central Committee) banning all gatherings. As she was reading the PDF, Sabban got another WhatsApp message saying that there may have been Covid-19-positive guests at the 250-person event she had just attended.
In mid-March, the first two cases of the novel coronavirus were confirmed in the Jewish community of Mexico City, a tightly knit group of roughly 100,000 people that includes many large extended families. While Mexico’s leadership vacillated in its response to the virus, with president Andrés Manuel López Obrador showing off amulets that he claimed offered protection from the virus and disregarding social distancing, Jewish leaders acted quickly. The committee that oversees the country’s various Jewish organizations announced the closure of all schools and communal spaces for the duration of the crisis, as well as the postponement of weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. The message quickly spread, and Mexican Jews went into lockdown.
Mexico’s Jewish community is different from those elsewhere in the world, especially the United States. It’s made up of four large groups that are Orthodox and traditionalist, and two that are smaller and conservative, all located mostly in Mexico City. Rather than being structured around individual synagogues, these groups, which are distinguished by ethnic origins (with more than half coming from the Middle East and former Ottoman Empire), are more akin to micro welfare states. Members are registered from birth, and in exchange for paying mandatory dues, families receive access to various services, such as academic scholarships and food pantries. Each community has its own cemetery, schools, network of synagogues, and event halls.
But the various populations are not hermetically sealed, with people marrying and socializing across them, so any effort to contain the virus would require a clear and unified response. Making this all the more urgent was the fact that the risk of the disease spreading was high. Social gatherings are frequent, and a normal bar or bat mitzvah might have upward of 400 guests, while a weekly Shabbat dinner at a grandparent’s home often includes 60 or more relatives. When Sabban got the message about the wedding, she went straight into self-isolation. She had come back to Mexico City for a surprise birthday gathering that was also cancelled.
Usually, the Jewish Central Committee is responsible for overseeing security, managing relations with the government, and directing sensitive operations — during the rash of kidnappings in the late nineties and aughts, it even negotiated ransom payments. For this crisis, the committee created a new website to publish Covid-19 information, inform people about how to get tested, and put the community in touch with relevant resources. Across Mexico, there have been approximately 70,000 cases reported and more than 7,000 fatalities. But testing is severely limited, and in mid-April, Deputy Health Minister Hugo López-Gatell said that there could be more than 56,000 cases, with the majority undiagnosed. As of late May, there have been 270 confirmed cases in the Jewish community. Four people have died, and 151 have recovered.
As the disease has spread, Mexican Jews have adapted to life under quarantine. Speaking on the phone from his home in Mexico City, Rabbi Abraham Tobal, the Orthodox chief rabbi of Alianza Monte Sinai, headquartered in the upscale west side of Mexico City, said that, rather than offering his services in person, he’s found alternative methods. This includes filming videos about social distancing guidelines for TuTorah.tv, a website catering specifically to Spanish-speaking Jews; offering advice over the phone; and hosting Facebook Live Q&As to assuage people’s concerns about how the new rules might interfere with religious observance.
In the days preceding Passover, Tobal created a SoundCloud recording of himself singing the Haggadah, a religious text that tells the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, and sent it out via WhatsApp, along with a several-thousand-word explanatory message for those who might not have the relevant religious books handy. All of these materials were prefaced with the caveat that they should be listened to, read, watched, or printed before the holiday, when the use of electronics is prohibited.
As people remain cloistered at home, it’s not just Jewish students who are taking classes on Zoom. Across the wider community, virtual gatherings are now standing in for activities that would normally take place IRL. Johanna Strimlingas, a Yiddish translator who has been isolating at home with her octogenarian husband, says that every night they participate in a different webinar or conference. “Last night we went to a talk with a journalist about the representation of Israel in the media,” she said. A recent Zoom conversation hosted by Tobal and Rabbi Raúl Askenazi about the myths and realities behind the Netflix miniseries “Unorthodox,” which features a young woman who leaves the ultra-Orthodox Satmar sect in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, attracted nearly 700 participants. Even practicing Jews had questions about some of the details of the show, like whether religious women really shave their heads when they get married. (Only Satmar women do, according to the rabbis.) After an hour, so many questions remained that the rabbis decided they’d host another session the following week.
The pandemic has also highlighted the use of apps particular to the community, such as ones for a private Jewish ambulance company, a Torah study center, and a Jewish matchmaking service. Those who don’t want to venture out to the grocery store can order fresh kosher meat (which forms the basis of many Syrian recipes) through Kosher Click, a local Jewish mashup of Instacart and Uber Eats. The sudden necessity of certain apps has changed the demographics that use them: According to Kosher Click founder Salomón Hamui, before the pandemic, most users were women in their 20s to 50s, but since the start of the lockdown, more divorced men and older women have begun using the app.
Some within the community doubt these changes will be permanent. Gad Levy, an app developer and a member of Maguen David Synagogue, is skeptical about whether people really want to download apps when most information is already available online. Elias Shuchleib, CEO of ed-tech startup Dev.f, which runs coding schools across Mexico and South America, shares Levy’s concern about the viability of these apps, but he thinks the reasons are more deep-seated. “Technology allows for the creation of a more horizontal world, which is very different from a fundamentally conservative and more closed-off community,” he reflected, adding that the Jewish community in Mexico holds “different worldviews” from tech companies.
After dragging its feet, the Mexican government did launch a coronavirus-pandemic site in late March, an app in April, and a Covid-19 data site in mid-April. However, distrust in the Mexican government is high, and members of the Jewish community prefer to rely on their own resources. Even as many Jews speculate that the country will start to reopen in the coming weeks, they plan to stay home and continue until the Jewish Central Committee tells them otherwise.