As virus spreads, US officials struggle to halt ultra-Orthodox gatherings

Brooklyn neighborhoods with large Haredi populations hit hard by COVID-19, but some parts of community still defying social distancing orders

People walk through the empty streets of the Boro Park neighborhood on March 19, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)
People walk through the empty streets of the Boro Park neighborhood on March 19, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON — Despite strenuous warnings from health officials and federal authorities to avoid large gatherings amid the coronavirus outbreak, many ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York have continued to congregate in large groups, risking the rapid spread of the new coronavirus.

More than 100 people have recently tested positive for COVID-19 in Borough Park and Williamsburg — two Brooklyn neighborhoods with large ultra-Orthodox populations.

On Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews reveled together for a wedding in Brooklyn until the Fire Department broke it up. Community members have continued to gather in synagogues, yeshivas and elsewhere, even as governments in the US and around the world take ever-more drastic steps to enforce social distancing and stop the virus’s spread. The community is increasingly seen as a public health hazard, along with teens and young adults who have continued to throng bars, restaurants, beaches and other venues, putting older Americans at risk.

New York has been among the hardest hit states in the US, with at least 20 deaths and almost 4,000 cases in New York City alone. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently banned gatherings of more than 50 people to stop the spread of the virus.

In the US and Israel, Jewish religious leaders have urged congregants to follow social distancing rules, closing synagogues and stressing the sanctity of life over strict religious adherence.

“All gatherings – including weddings and even prayer services – have been forbidden in no uncertain terms by rabbinical leaders,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public Affairs of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox group. “Shuls large and small have shut and locked their doors and made it clear that people should not gather even in a small group in a home to pray with a minyan.”

In both countries, however, some hard-line ultra-Orthodox rabbis have resisted the precautions, keeping schools and synagogues open.

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

In Israel, four people, including one American breaking quarantine, were arrested this week for organizing a wedding, and cases have multiplied in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem suburb of Givat Yearim, where some initially ignored quarantine orders. On Thursday, a top Israeli official reportedly warned that the country could see Italy-like death rates if the ultra-Orthodox do not start obeying rules.

On Tuesday, White House official Avi Berkowitz urged Orthodox rabbis on a conference call to ensure their followers comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on limiting gatherings of people. Berkowitz, an assistant to Trump tasked with shepherding US-Palestinian peace talks, is Orthodox himself.

Following the call, some groups put out statements saying they would follow the orders going forward, including the Bobov Hasidic sect, which closed down its affiliated synagogues in Illinois.

“With the increase of COVID-19 cases in our community … we regret to share that we have come to the conclusion that we MUST close the shuls in the city of Chicago,” the group said in a statement. “The magnitude of this decision should impress upon every member of our community the seriousness of the situation. Like cannot proceed as usual, significant lifestyle changes must be made.”

Likewise, the Brooklyn headquarters of the worldwide Chabad movement closed Wednesday, for the first time in its history.

Aaron Keyak, a DC insider and Orthodox Jew, called said the actions of members of the community who were still ignoring the directives were “inexcusable.”

Former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, and managing partner of Bluelight Strategies, a Washington-based consultancy, Aaron Keyak (Courtesy)

“A lot of these people aren’t risking their own lives, but they’re killing their grandmother. In a way, it’s worse,” he told The Times of Israel.

“Two weeks after the NBA season shut down, there were two groups still defying the orders to combat this national emergency and this global pandemic: the Hasidim and the millennials,” he added.

Members of the community, who some of whom tend to be distrustful of secular authorities, have said that they will be protected by continuing to maintain religious life, even if it means gathering en masse.

“The Torah protects us and saves us. We’re not scared,” one ultra-Orthodox man in Israel told JTA this week. “I’m young. People in the yeshivas aren’t afraid because we won’t get sick and anyone with a fever is sent home. We learn Torah, so it won’t happen.”

The Manhattan bridge is seen in the background of a flashing sign urging commuters to avoid gatherings, reduce crowding and to wash hands in the Brooklyn borough of New York, on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (AP/Wong Maye-E)

Shafran said he expected ultra-Orthodox communities to begin to obey the directives, attributing the delay to them being more cut off from the secular world.

“I think it’s to be expected that there is often a lag between an announcement and when it settles into the public consciousness, especially in parts of the public that may be more insular than most,” he wrote in an email to The Times of Israel.  “One has to appreciate the importance of gatherings – for happy occasions and sad ones, for prayer and for study – to Orthodox communities. Disrupting the very fabric of daily life in such communities, even when necessary, won’t happen instantaneously.”

Ultra Orthodox Jewish men look at a “Pashkvil”- information poster about the Coronavirus in Jerusalem on March 18, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 )

Health officials around the world have called for extreme social distancing to “flatten the curve” of people catching the novel coronavirus, thus keeping .

They worry that the United States currently does not have enough hospital beds, ventilators and other life-saving equipment to treat millions who are infected in a short period of time.

Mainstream Jewish leaders have invoked the Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh — which calls for the primacy of saving lives over the maintenance of almost all other Jewish rituals.

“The most critical point we’re sharing is that Jewish tradition teaches us that pikuach nefesh — saving lives — takes precedence over pretty much everything else we might do,” said Sheila Katz, who heads the National Council of Jewish Women. “And, right now, that means choosing to not come together so we avoid harm to anyone, especially those at most risk.”

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