As virus hits tight-knit Haredi communities, rabbis among first to fall ill

Chabad’s Rabbi Masoud Tubul, 64, passes away from COVID-19 in Paris; Satmar’s Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, 72-year-old head of world’s largest Hasidic sect, is diagnosed with virus

An ultra-Orthodox youth in Jerusalem, March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An ultra-Orthodox youth in Jerusalem, March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The coronavirus outbreak is taking a heavy toll on tight-knit Orthodox Jewish communities, with many experiencing severe outbreaks and religious leaders falling ill in recent days.

In Paris, a Chabad rabbi passed away from the virus, the local community said.

Rabbi Masoud Tubul, the longtime head of the Beit Chana girls’ school in Paris’s Chabad Hasidic community, was 64 when he passed away Saturday night, the Haredi news site Kikar Hashabbat reported on Sunday.

In New York state, the influential Satmar rebbe, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum of Kiryas Joel, was diagnosed with the coronavirus causing COVID-19, the Satmar Hasidic community announced on Saturday night.

Chabad’s Rabbi Masoud Tubul, who passed away March 21, 2020 after contracting COVID-19. (Chabad Online screen capture from

The 72-year-old rabbi, who leads one of the largest Hasidic sects in the world with tens of thousands of followers, spent the Sabbath in isolation in a room at his home on Zanz Street in the town north of New York City.

Orthodox and Haredi communities and media outlets in the New York area were sharing lists of names of individuals seriously ill from the virus asking fellow Jews to recite Psalms and pray for their healing.

Haredi communities in the US and Israel have seen sharp spikes in COVID-19 cases because of their tight-knit communal lifestyle and because many at first refused to obey social distancing rules.

Satmar Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum gives a speech to thousands of his followers at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, New York, on June 3, 2018. (Screen capture: YouTube)

On Tuesday, New York media reported that 100 people in Borough Park, a Haredi neighborhood in Brooklyn, tested positive for the virus — out of a total of 1,000 tests conducted in the area by the Asisa urgent care clinic.

The state’s first major outbreak centered around another Jewish community north of the city, and in New Jersey, the city of Teaneck, with a large Orthodox population, has been called “ground zero” for the state’s coronavirus crisis.

Last week, White House adviser Avi Berkowitz spoke with Hasidic leaders in a conference call in which he urged them to instruct their followers to obey the government’s social distancing rules. The rabbis agreed, issuing orders that included restrictions on gathering for public prayer.

Earlier this month, the leader of Israel’s Lithuanian, or non-Hasidic, Haredi community, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, initially ordered his hundreds of thousands of followers to defy Health Ministry orders to close schools and seminaries.

The order sparked an outcry and led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and police officials to hold meetings with Haredi leaders to convince them to obey the restrictions.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at his home in Bnei Brak on April 15, 2018. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

After several days of discussions during which most Haredi educational institutions remained open, Kanievsky acquiesced.

Even after the reversal, which saw dramatic restrictions imposed on Haredi institutions, media reports surfaced of several large gatherings held in the community, leading police to arrest some event organizers.

Both of Israel’s chief rabbis have issued decrees saying Jewish law commanded obedience to the Health Ministry’s rules.

Some media reports have also noted that, in the case of Israel’s Haredi community, part of the spike in coronavirus infections in the community could be traced to high levels of volunteering in medical and rescue services by community members, which have put many in contact with those fallen ill with COVID-19.

On Tuesday, British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis ordered the closure of all synagogues affiliated with United Synagogue, the largest network of Orthodox synagogues in the country.

Some of the students at a Haredi boys school in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, just west of Jerusalem, where classes were still being held on March 18, 2020. (Sam Sokol/JTA)

“These extraordinary times call upon us to take extraordinary measures,” Mirvis said in a letter.

“Our Torah obligation to protect the sanctity of life transcends all other considerations. Therefore, with much pain and with the heaviest of hearts, in consultation with the Dayanim (judges) of the London Beit Din (rabbinical court), I have concluded that we have a Halachic imperative to suspend all activity at all of our synagogues until further notice,” he wrote.

The order includes prayer services as well as educational, cultural and social gatherings.

JTA contributed to this report.

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