Critics warn rabbinate’s call for day of public prayer puts thousands at risk

Despite ongoing concern over lack of social distancing among ultra-Orthodox, police have no plans to shutter yeshivas defying closure order

Young men study in a yeshiva open in violation of Health Ministry guidelines. March 18, 2020. (Sam Sokol)
Young men study in a yeshiva open in violation of Health Ministry guidelines. March 18, 2020. (Sam Sokol)

The Chief Rabbinate on Monday issued a call on Israelis to gather in synagogues across the country Wednesday for a day of fasting and prayer in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus, which as of Tuesday night had infected more than 1,650 people in Israel, with three fatalities.

In a letter (Hebrew) published online, chief rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau called on the public to heed the call while adhering to the Health Ministry’s social-distancing guidelines, limiting prayer groups to 10 members standing two meters apart from each other.

But with the publication of new epidemiological data on Tuesday showing that a significant number of Israelis with COVID-19 contracted the coronavirus at a synagogue, some critics are questioning this kind of rabbinate activity, and also asking whether the government’s containment efforts, especially in ultra-Orthodox communities, have been sufficiently rigorous.

One critic said the government ought to have ordered all synagogues closed, and would have done so, were it not afraid of the response from some in the ultra-Orthodox community.

A ‘disappointing’ response

Research published Tuesday by Corona National Information and Knowledge Center, a government body of researchers that serves as an advisory group to the Health Ministry and the Home Front Command, found that 46.9 percent of Israelis had contracted the coronavirus abroad, 4.4% at home and 13.1% at an unknown location. Out of the remaining 35.6% of cases in which the source of the infection is known, nearly a quarter contracted it at a synagogue, making prayer one of the leading vectors for the spread of the disease.

A lone ultra-Orthodox man sits and learns Torah in a deserted Beit Shemesh synagogue on March 18, 2020. (Sam Sokol)

According to Seth Farber, a modern Orthodox rabbi whose organization, Itim, helps Israelis navigate the country’s religious bureaucracy, the rabbinate’s handling of the crisis has been “disappointing” because it “ought to be leading the call for people to sanctify life.”

Organizing a public fast, by contrast, he charged, “will unquestionably put people’s lives in danger.” Instead of encouraging people to attend synagogue, the rabbinate should have “been ahead of the curve and insisted that people choose life” over synagogue attendance.

Asked about critics’ concerns, Rabbinate spokesman Kobi Alter told The Times of Israel that everything the bureau was doing was in accordance with established Health Ministry guidelines and that worshipers could be trusted to obey the rules. He said it was absolutely forbidden to hold services in any location “that cannot comply with the Health Ministry’s directives regarding the prohibition of gathering of more than ten people.”

“If the Health Ministry changes the rules, the rabbinate will as well,” he said.

Rabbi Seth Farber, head of Itim organization in undated photo. (Itim)

Farber, however, objected to this reasoning, calling it a “distortion” and noting that while the Health Ministry has allowed gatherings of 10 people for religious reasons, it has also gone out of its way to discourage people from leaving their homes — the very opposite of the rabbis’ call.

“The rabbinate’s obsession with public prayer has blinded them to this most basic of Jewish values,” Farber said.

Rabbi David Stav, co-founder and chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical organization. (Flash 90, File)

“Everybody in the government knows it’s impossible to follow the orders of Health Ministry in synagogues,” agreed Rabbi David Stav, the chairman of Tzohar, an organization that provides an Orthodox alternative to the rabbinate. “The only reason they don’t give a clear answer to shut down the synagogues is because they are afraid of the Haredi community.”

The idea for mass prayer was “amazing” in principle, he said, but directing people to congregate in synagogues puts “tens of thousands of Jews at risk.”

Weak enforcement?

Stav was also highly critical of the government’s enforcement, in the ultra-Orthodox community, of its recent directive to shut down schools, claiming that it had gone easy on the Haredi community because of political considerations.

Police have broken up a number of ultra-Orthodox weddings held in violation of the regulations prohibiting large gatherings, but have not shut down any yeshivas operating in violation of the new rules.

Last week, several prominent rabbinic leaders announced that they would not comply with government directives, stating that their schools and yeshivas would remain open. They did, however, limit class sizes to 10 students, a compromise reached after negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

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)

In explanation, an associate of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, considered the most prominent leader of the Lithuanian branch of non-Hasidic Haredi Orthodoxy, said that in his opinion “canceling Torah study is more dangerous than corona[virus].”

Last Wednesday, the Health Ministry ordered the closure of all ultra-Orthodox schools, many of which heeded the decision. The next day, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch of the powerful ultra-Orthodox Eidah Hareidit organization, was reported in Haredi media to have called for the closure of synagogues and yeshivas.

According to Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman’s spokesman Yaakov Izak, the ministry is working on reaching out to the ultra-Orthodox community, many of whose members eschew television, internet and smartphones, “on all levels.”

Israelis visit the beach in Tel Aviv despite government orders to avoid public gatherings due to the spread of the new coronavirus, March 21, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Pointing out that many secular Israelis had broken ministry guidelines to go to the beach, Izak said one could not point to any specific community as particularly problematic and asserted that as of Tuesday “the Haredi educational system is closed.”

“There are no yeshivas that are active,” he said.

However, while many in the mainstream Haredi community are observing strict social-distancing guidelines, at least two yeshivas were observed to be open in the extreme ultra-Orthodox enclave of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet on Tuesday afternoon.

In Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood on Sunday, Haredi extremists clashed with police as officers worked to ensure compliance with a government-ordered partial lockdown meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Large numbers of ultra-Orthodox men crowded around the officers. Rioters pelted cops with stones, and one officer was lightly injured, the Israel Police said in a statement.

Spreading the word

Because of the closed nature of Haredi society, much of the police department’s efforts have focused on “getting messages out on what to do,” national police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told The Times of Israel.

“Our main effort is getting messages to the community that they stay in closed areas as much as possible,” he explained, describing outreach efforts involving meetings with community rabbis and yeshiva heads urging them to observe social-distancing rules.

An ultra-Orthodox Jew stands next to Health Ministry posters urging social distancing on March 24, 2020. (Sam Sokol)

Asked if any steps were being taken to close down any yeshivas which have remained open, Rosenfeld said that none have been shuttered so far and that “we’re not going to forcefully close any yeshivas at the moment.”

Rosenfeld also disputed a report in the Haaretz Hebrew daily claiming that the police were intentionally declining to enforce rules prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people in synagogues.

“All government decisions are being implemented by the police in full coordination with the Ministry of Health,” he said.

While some yeshivas have indeed violated regulations, those remaining are expected to shut down in two days for the annual break surrounding the Passover holiday, said Doctor Asher Shalmon, Director of the International Relations Division in the Health Ministry.

A sign in an ultra-Orthodox synagogue calls on congregants to obey social distancing rules. (Sam Sokol)

Like Rosenfeld, he said that his ministry was focusing on outreach in the Haredi community, organizing meetings with rabbis, taking out advertisements in Haredi newspapers and putting up street posters in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

“In general, if you check what’s happening, the vast majority obey the rules. Enforcement mostly means administrative fines of NIS 3,000-5,000 ($832-$1,387). Most yeshivas have shut down by now.”

While several individual Modern Orthodox rabbis have allowed online prayer gatherings as synagogues are closed, the top leadership of the Israeli branch of the Conservative Movement recently issued a ruling permitting the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish with a virtual online prayer quorum.

“When we saw things were escalating there was a unanimous decision to close down and make it virtual,” explained Masorati (Conservative) Movement Executive Director Dr. Yizhar Hess. “Everything not on Shabbat is virtual.”

“We are really in a stage in the Jewish world where we have to redefine what congregation means without congregating and it’s a new paradigm in Judaism that is being written in these very days,” he said, adding that the high rate of infection in synagogues meant that the government should have done more, sooner.

JTA and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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