Messianic youth groups in Jerusalem among those quarantined after COVID-19 outbreak

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Just last week it looked like Israel had defeated the coronavirus and the government began to open up schools, houses of worship, workplaces, restaurants, gyms, malls and barber shops under certain restrictions while meetings of up to 50 people in an open space are now permitted.

And unless a new outbreak occurs, most restrictions will be lifted by June 14.

However, now many are wondering whether that new outbreak has already arrived. When a student of a large high school in Jerusalem was diagnosed with coronavirus, his classmates went into quarantine and several other students and teachers tested positive.

Since then the mayor ordered the school to be closed and for all pupils and staff of the Gymnasia Rehavia high school to be tested. To date, more than 173 have tested positive for COVID-19. Established in 1909, the Gymnasia was the first modern high school in Jerusalem to teach in Hebrew, and one of its alumni is President Reuven Rivlin.

One of the largest high schools in Jerusalem, the Gymnasia is home to several Messianic students some of whom had attended youth group meetings days before being diagnosed with the coronavirus. Now, all teens and leaders who attended those meetings were forced to go into quarantine as well.

“This only shows how important it is to keep the rules of social distancing, checking temperature, wearing the masks, as we did,” one of the Jerusalem Assembly youth leaders told KNI from quarantine. “Most of the people who attended the youth meeting have been checked since, and except for two teenagers who caught it at the Gymnasia, no one had a test that came back positive.”

Some 29 teenagers attended the meeting on May 25 and rigidly adhered to the government’s requirements for masks, hygiene and social distancing.

“It was the first physical meeting we had since they lifted the restrictions,” the youth leader continued. “The day before we had the meeting for the young teenagers, ages 11 to 13, with no incidents. This day we had the older teenagers, ages 14 to 18. Seven of the teenagers were from the Gymnasia. No one had any symptoms. Two days later the news about the outbreak broke, and all the Gymnasia students had to get tested. Out of those seven, two of them turned out positive. We found out about the first of them only on Saturday morning, so based on that everyone who was at the meeting had to go into quarantine and get tested.”

The rules in Israel require that if you have been in contact with a confirmed diagnosed person with coronavirus, you must enter self-quarantine in a separate room, eating from separate dishes and, if possible, using a separate bathroom than the rest of the family for 14 days from the time of exposure, even if your test results are negative.

“The only positive test results are from the Gymnasia students, so it seems like no one caught it at the congregation,” the youth leader said. “This case does however highlight the issue on whether we should resume physical meetings at all, as long as this Damocles sword hangs over us, of the possibility of being forced into quarantine.”

Meno Kalisher, a pastor at Jerusalem Assembly, also had to go into quarantine.

“I drove some of the kids home, including the one who later turned out to be COVID-19 positive. I was very strict with keeping masks on, even in the car,” Kalisher told KNI. “They had to sit with distance from one another. And everyone who were in the car with me were later tested, no one caught it from him. Two of the kids brought the corona with them from their school, but right now it seems like no one was infected in the congregation.”

Kalisher stressed the importance of following the restrictions of using disposable plates, social distancing, masks at all times and checking temperature in order to keep congregants safe.

“I thank God for my staff, they didn’t cut any corners, they did everything by the book, and we can now see the results,” he said. “Those who arrived infected stayed infected, those who arrived healthy went home healthy. I’m glad we can be a good testimony.”

Kalisher said the quarantine is a hassle, but is better than being sick. He is using his time to carry on the work of Jerusalem Assembly.

“The congregation doesn’t stop functioning,” he said. “I have prepared sermons, taught a class online, had a Zoom meeting with the teenagers, another Zoom meeting as a board member of a local ministry and now I’m editing the book for my doctorate. Life goes on as normal, even if I am put in quarantine.”

Jerusalem Assembly was not the only congregation in Jerusalem affected by COVID-19 positive attendees. KNI also spoke with the youth leader of another congregation who preferred to remain anonymous.

“We were debating whether or not we should arrange a physical meeting now that they lifted the restrictions. We decided to do it, but to make sure to keep all the restrictions and be rigid about it. We kept all the requirements: We met outside, we had masks on the entire time – well except when we ate pizza – and we kept social distancing and everything. And then the first time we try – boom, quarantine.”

This group met on May 26 and then the day after news broke about the Gymnasia. The results from the Gymnasia students that attended the meeting didn’t come in until June 1.

“So now, everyone who was at the meeting – teenagers, youth leaders – they all have to go into quarantine and get checked,” the youth leader said.

While it remains unknown for now whether coronavirus has spread within the congregation, it is nevertheless a challenge with a third of the congregation now in quarantine.

“It really makes it difficult to plan things. This will also affect all midweek meetings and Shabbat services. We were planning to do more physical meetings now that it was allowed, but we will probably have to reconsider those decisions now.”

At the time of this writing, Israel considers the outbreak at the Gymnasia an isolated incident and the easing of restrictions will go on as planned unless a further spread is reported. Despite the current outbreak, the number of severely ill patients has not risen. However, several other schools in Jerusalem have closed completely or partially due to other isolated incidents whether in their schools or because of pressure from the parent committees.

Only time will tell whether this is the beginning of a second wave or an isolated spread that will be contained. Messianic congregations are doing their part to avoid a second outbreak.