Expert calls situation in Haredi community life-threatening

As infections surge, mass ultra-Orthodox weddings held despite lockdown rules

Hundreds attend events in Beitar Illit, where positive test rate is highest in Israel at 26%, and Bnei Brak, where police are reportedly ordered to let wedding go on

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men from the Toldos Aharon Hasidic dynasty attend a wedding in Beitar Illit, violating coronavirus regulations, January 5, 2021. (Screenshot: Twitter)
Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men from the Toldos Aharon Hasidic dynasty attend a wedding in Beitar Illit, violating coronavirus regulations, January 5, 2021. (Screenshot: Twitter)

Mass indoor weddings were held in the ultra-Orthodox community in at least two locations Tuesday night, even as coronavirus infections are spiraling out of control in the community. In at least one of the cases, police forces were reportedly ordered to allow the event to go on as planned.

Hundreds attended a wedding in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit — mostly without wearing masks — against the current lockdown rules that only allow up to 20 people to congregate together outdoors and 10 indoors.

Beitar Illit is one of the country’s worst virus hotspots, with 145.5 COVID-19 patients per 10,000 people and a positive test rate of 26% — the highest in Israel — according to the Health Ministry.

The attendees were from the extremist, anti-Zionist Toldos Aharon Hasidic dynasty, and were celebrating the wedding of its spiritual leader’s grandson.

Police forces arrived near the end of the event to break up the illegal gathering in a local synagogue and found its doors locked.

“The revelers refused to open them,” the Israel Police said in a statement. “Only after talks with the organizers were the doors opened and hundreds were seen, not wearing masks and in violation of the restrictions.”

While the crowd was being dispersed, dozens of wedding guests clashed with the cops and threw rocks at them, damaging a police vehicle, according to the statement.

The event organizers and the owner of the venue were summoned for questioning, and their sound equipment was seized.

The officers who allowed the wedding go ahead have been summoned for a hearing on their conduct, according to the Ynet news site, after a photo circulated on social media showing a police officer bowing as he receives a blessing during the event, surrounded by unmasked Hasidic revelers.

In a separate event in the central Israel city of Bnei Brak, some 700 members of the Erlau Hasidic dynasty participated in the wedding of its leader’s grandchild at a construction site.

Police arrived at the beginning of the event, but left after intervention by police and municipality officials, according to Haredi journalist Israel Frey.

The event continued and only toward the end of the celebration did the cops return, ask attendees to leave, hand organizers a NIS 5,000 ($1,570) fine and summon the site owner for questioning.

Additionally, Army Radio reported that Haredi community leaders were weighing keeping the education system open during the stricter lockdown, illegally.

Commenting on the report, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein told the radio station: “We are all in the same boat and sometimes people punch holes in the boat. When there are holes in the lockdown, there are violations on multiple fronts. Everyone will face enforcement.”

Ran Balicer, who heads a national team of experts on the virus, said that while infections had dropped dramatically in the ultra-Orthodox community in October due to adherence to the regulations, the situation was now life-threatening.

“For several weeks, the number of new infections has been doubling every week,” he told the Kan public broadcaster. “I hope and assume the community leaders will understand that and take appropriate action.”

Daily coronavirus cases nationwide have topped 8,000 for the second day in a row, according to Health Ministry figures published Wednesday morning. The highest daily tally since the start of the pandemic was September 30, when over 9,000 infections were recorded while the country was under a second lockdown.

Active cases and serious patients are also nearing an all-time high.

Health care workers take coronavirus test samples of Israelis in a drive through complex in Jerusalem, January 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Government ministers voted Tuesday night in favor of tightening the current nationwide lockdown by shuttering schools and nonessential businesses for two weeks, with the aim of cutting rising daily infections.

The increased measures will come into force at midnight between Thursday and Friday, according to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Health Ministry.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “one final effort” to keep COVID-19 at bay, as contagion spreads alarmingly even as Israel continues its vaccination campaign. Leading the world in per capita vaccinations, Israel had inoculated some 1.5 million of its 9.3 million populace by late Tuesday, including some 55% of the 60-plus age group.

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