20% of COVID cases among Haredim, fueling fears of holiday surge at synagogues

Leading epidemiologist warns small clusters of the unvaccinated could cause ‘hundreds’ of deaths if they join indoor Rosh Hashanah prayer services alongside the high-risk

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative image: A Haredi man receives a COVID-19 test (David Cohen/Flash90)
Illustrative image: A Haredi man receives a COVID-19 test (David Cohen/Flash90)

Some 20 percent of Israel’s active coronavirus cases are among ultra-Orthodox Jews, though the community only accounts for 12 percent of the population.

Members of the community are considered most likely to pray indoors at synagogues — more than Modern Orthodox Jews who have been more open to moving their prayer services outdoors — raising concerns there could be a significant coronavirus spike among Haredim after the long prayer services held on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.

Mani Hadad, spokesman for the Health Ministry’s ultra-Orthodox desk, reported the figures to The Times of Israel on Monday hours before Rosh Hashanah begins, expressing fears the festival may lead to further increases in morbidity.

He noted problems with adherence to COVID-19 regulations in the Haredi community, saying: “Sadly there isn’t diligence about the wearing of masks in many synagogues.”

He stressed, however, that “people are vaccinating, there has been good take-up of booster shots, and people are carefully observing quarantine orders when they are issued.”

Nevertheless, leading epidemiologist Hagai Levine said small pockets of unvaccinated people who get infected and pray in synagogues alongside high-risk individuals could cause “a few hundred deaths that could have been prevented if the infected people vaccinated.”

Illustrative image: a Haredi man receives a coronavirus vaccine in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Levine told The Times of Israel: “If people are in synagogues and there is mixing between infected people and high-risk people, even vaccinated high-risk people, there is likelihood of infection and deaths from this.”

He said the government, which is is urging Israelis to pray outdoors while allowing synagogues to stay open, should have done more to avert this danger.

“It should have sent out a plan for the holiday and actually established set places for outdoor prayer,” Levine said, suggesting that if nice shaded areas were set up, it could have increased the proportion of people praying outside.

Despite his concerns, Levine said the disproportionately high infection level among Haredim doesn’t necessarily portend a dire situation, stressing the key question is how cases impact serious illness. Members of the ultra-Orthodox community are under-represented in coronavirus wards, with Hadad saying they currently account for around 7% of serious cases.

Ziv hospital team members at the coronavirus ward in Safed on July 28, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Levine and Hadad both expressed hope the low hospitalization rate reflected vaccination levels in the Haredi community and its high proportion of younger people, who are less likely to come down with serious illness if infected. But both fear serious morbidity will get worse as more cases filter through to hospitals, as there is often a time-lag between rising infections and an increase in serious cases.

“It’s likely that we will see many more cases among the ultra-Orthodox,” Levine said.

Last year, the flouting of coronavirus rules by parts of the Haredi community amid soaring infections became a source of major national controversy. One of Israel’s top Haredi rabbis, Chaim Kanievsky, recently gave a strong endorsement to vaccines and said that unvaccinated teachers were not welcome in ultra-Orthodox schools, in remarks seen as a signal that religious leaders were pushing for their community to change path and increase compliance with COVID mitigation measures.

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