Kanievsky defied calls to shut yeshivas for 2 weeks in March

Charity tied to top rabbi raises cash with promise of immunity from coronavirus

Bnei Brak-based Kupat Ha’ir organization, associated with Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, tells donors a NIS 3,000 payment will guarantee their family protection from COVID-19

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

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

A charity affiliated with a prominent and controversial ultra-Orthodox rabbi has been promising donors who pay NIS 3,000 ($836) that they will enjoy immunity from the coronavirus for themselves and their families.

The Bnei Brak-based Kupat Ha’ir organization launched the campaign last month. The groups says it has the blessing of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and is aimed at raising funds for families affected by the virus in the largely ultra-Orthodox city.

The community of 200,000 near Tel Aviv has been hard hit by the virus, with the second highest infection total in the country — 2,150 as of Thursday. Jerusalem leads with 2,418 cases. Health officials have speculated that there could be tens of thousands of undiagnosed cases in Bnei Brak.

Kanievsky is a prominent leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Bnei Brak with hundreds of thousands of followers. Last month, he initially defied government calls to close yeshivas, only reversing his stance after two fateful weeks.

The Kupat Ha’ir website states that any donor who sends a payment of NIS 3,000 — in up to 30 installments — will receive an amulet in addition to an assurance on behalf of Kanievsky that “he will not get sick and that there will not be anyone sick in his home.”

The charity organization, which has a budget of NIS 131 million ($36.5 million), has raised over NIS 280,000 ($77,990) since launching the campaign, according to a Friday Channel 12 report.

The rabbinic leader of the Gur hasidic movement Yaakov Aryeh Alter, right and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky attend a United Torah Judaism Party campaign rally in Jerusalem, on September 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a recorded phone conversation between a reporter from the network and a staffer from Kupat Ha’ir, the charity employee can be heard saying that her organization is run by Kanievsky and its rabbis are working on his behalf.

“So you want to join in the saving of the sick and earn a blessing from Rabbi Kanievsky that those who save the sick [by donating] will receive, God willing, a home without any sick people inside?” the staffer says. “One of the managers of Kupat Ha’ir approached [Kanievsky] and asked him point blank if his blessing covers the coronavirus, and he said that it does.”

When asked if it was possible to donate a smaller sum, the charity worker said that NIS 3,000 is the minimum, as this is the amount that is given to each family affected by the virus.

In response to the Channel 12 report, a statement “from the house of Kanievsky” said that “contrary to what was presented, the rabbi praises donors who, thanks to their charity, will be saved from serious illness. As the Torah stipulates: ‘charity will save from death.’ The rabbi continues to pray for the salvation of the nation of Israel.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray outside a closed yeshiva, in the town of Bnei Brak, on March 26, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Kanievsky made headlines on March 12 when, despite appeals from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Israel Police, he insisted that yeshivas and schools remain open in defiance of government calls to close them, handing down a ruling stating that “canceling Torah study is more dangerous than the coronavirus.”

Footage of the barely audible 92-year-old rabbi giving his prognosis suggested that he did not completely understand the magnitude of his decision, with his grandson having to explain what the coronavirus was in the first place.

But the decision was respected by his inner circle and was a key factor in keeping thousands of his followers in crowded synagogues and yeshiva study halls for two further weeks, allowing the virus to spread rapidly through the ultra-Orthodox community, particularly in Bnei Brak.

By March 25, Israel’s rabbinate had ordered all synagogues closed, recommending that people pray outside in small, widely spaced groups. Days later, Kanievsky made an about-face, ruling — according to his inner circle — that Orthodox Jews must pray by themselves and that it was permissible to report synagogues or any other establishment violating government directives. Those breaking the rules had the status of a rodef, a Talmudic term for someone trying to kill another person.

The Kupat Ha’ir campaign was not the first time ultra-Orthodox authority figures distributed tokens they said would ward off the coronavirus.

The Central Elections Committee fined the ultra-Orthodox Shas party NIS 7,500 ($2,150) and ordered the faction to stop handing out anti-virus charms on election day last month.

A charm distributed by Shas political activists at election day polling stations, offering divine protection against the coronavirus, on March 2, 2020 (ToI staff)

Two weeks ago Bnei Brak was placed under a strict lockdown, with residents only allowed to leave municipal boundaries to work in key industries or to receive medical care. Several Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods were put under lockdown on Sunday.

The Cabinet approved a decision to relax lockdown restrictions on Bnei Brak on Thursday.

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