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Blood on rabbis’ hands, Haredi emergency chief says after mom’s COVID death

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav pleaded with his family not to hold a party, but with Haredi leaders not taking the virus seriously, the ZAKA rescue group leader says he didn’t stand a chance

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

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav with his mother Sarah in an undated picture. (Courtesy Mendy Hachtman)
Yehuda Meshi-Zahav with his mother Sarah in an undated picture. (Courtesy Mendy Hachtman)

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav waged an uphill battle for virus vigilance in the ultra-Orthodox community. But even his mother didn’t listen — and held a party that led to her infection and death.

Meshi-Zahav says that rabbis have “blood on their hands” for the death of his mother, Sarah, on Monday. Because of their disdain for COVID-19 rules, his cautious voice didn’t stand a chance when she decided to hold a family Hanukkah party.

“She was a healthy 80-year-old, with no medical history, and the virus took her. In the morning, I said Shema with her, and later in the day, she died,” he told The Times of Israel this week.

In October, Meshi-Zahav, the head of the ZAKA emergency response organization, rang alarm bells about Haredi conduct in an impassioned Times of Israel interview. He said then that the authority structure within the community meant any warnings or portrayal of the seriousness of the disease would fall on deaf ears so long as top rabbis stayed silent.

Now, it’s personal.

“I work with death every day,” said Meshi-Zahav, whose volunteer organization works to remove the bodies of COVID-19 victims and others to be prepared for burial. “But nothing prepares you for the sense of loss when it’s your own family.”

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav (center) at the funeral of his mother Sarah, in Jerusalem on January 18, 2021. (courtesy of Yehuda Meshi-Zahav)

Haredi communities have suffered disproportionately from the coronavirus, with infection rates in many ultra-Orthodox areas several times that of non-Haredi areas.

As of Tuesday, some 22.1 percent of daily tests from Haredi areas were coming back positive, compared to 9.2% in the general population, according to Roni Numa, head of the ultra-Orthodox desk at Israel’s coronavirus taskforce.

High infection rates among Haredim are partly due to large family size and environmental factors, but experts also blame rule-breaking in large pockets of the community, often supported by rabbis and other community leaders.

Numa told Hebrew-language media that even in the current lockdown, some 15% of Haredi educational institutions were operating, and said that some 12,000 ultra-Orthodox students had contracted the coronavirus in the last month.

“There are leaders of the community who have blood on their hands, and it’s the blood of my mother and of many others,” Meshi-Zahav said.

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav at the grave of his mother Sarah, after the funeral on January 18. 2021 (courtesy of Yehuda Meshi-Zahav)

Meshi-Zahav said that ahead of the party, in mid-December, he frantically tried to convince his large family to cancel the plans, but to no avail.

“I called everyone asking them to stop the party. I called my mother and asked her not to do it and spoke to other family members,” he said.

“I said it’s dangerous, don’t do it. But they live in a place where the atmosphere was different than in other places.”

“There was an atmosphere that we’ve reached the end of coronavirus — this was the feeling at Hanukkah,” he said.

Adherence to the rules often varies from community to community and sect to sect. Many Haredi rabbis and political leaders have shut schools, called for health guidelines to be kept and tried to encourage vaccination.

But in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim, where Meshi-Zahav’s parents lived, as well as many other areas, the tone is set by rabbis who take a different stance, he said.

The head rabbi of the ultra-Orthodox Toldos Aharon sect leaving a crowded synagogue in Safed, on January 7, 2020. David Cohen/Flash90)

Some give approval to rule-breaking and downplay the virus threat, he lamented. “People just aren’t absorbing the seriousness of the situation and the leaders are living on a different planet.”

Enforcement in many ultra-Orthodox areas has been lax, according to reports which found low numbers of fines given out for health violations in Haredi cities compared to other parts of the country. Some have blamed the upcoming elections and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s desire to maintain his alliance with Haredi political parties.

When police do go into Haredi neighborhoods, violence often ensues, with hard-liners rioting against enforcement measures. On Tuesday, clashes were reported in Bnei Brak, Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh.

Police officers clash with ultra-Orthodox men during enforcement of coronavirus emergency regulations, in the neighborhood of Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, January 14, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Some have noted the seeming cognitive dissonance of religious leaders who demand vigilance on religious matters but not health matters. A recent comment that went viral following a video of a large, crowded Haredi wedding noted that Orthodox tradition bans weddings during a month-long period following Passover in memory of a pandemic that occurred some 2,000 years ago, but rabbis won’t ban a wedding during a pandemic raging now.

It’s a sentiment Meshi-Zahav is familiar with. Rabbis, he said, could use their pulpits to save lives, but are not.

“The job of community leaders isn’t just to state positions on Jewish law,” he said, “but to show people how to live and to safeguard the health of the community.”

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