Embarrassed and pummeled by outside criticism, Haredim despair of virus fight

As broad swaths of their community flout lockdown restrictions, some are calling their peers to task — and asking the rest of Israel to understand their frustration

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews gather for the funeral for Rabbi Mordechai Leifer, in Ashdod, Israel, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
Large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews gather for the funeral for Rabbi Mordechai Leifer, in Ashdod, Israel, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Thousands of Hasidim marched on the sand-swept cemetery in the southern city of Ashdod on Monday to bury the Pittsburgher Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Leifer.

Leifer, 64, had for three decades led a small Hasidic community in Ashdod’s Kiryat Pittsburgh neighborhood.

The rebbe, too junior in Hasidic rabbinic hierarchies to be well known outside Ashdod but nevertheless a beloved local spiritual leader and composer, died Sunday of COVID-19 complications after contracting the coronavirus in August. His city of Ashdod is in the list of “red” cities where the infection rate is especially high.

But none of that — not the rebbe’s death, not the rampant spread of the virus that led to the current nationwide lockdown, not even the fact that the virus was spreading especially quickly through Ashdod’s Haredi community — prevented thousands of Hasidim from crowding together for his funeral, ignoring coronavirus restrictions and violating the law in the process.

Many of those Hasidim were not even his followers, and some — again in contravention of the law — had come from other cities to take part. One visiting rebbe, from the Sadigura dynasty, used the trip to visit his sect’s local seminary, releasing photographs of the visit that showed the same indifference to social distancing measures even in the heart of a virus-struck town.

During the funeral, a handful of police officers did their best to hold the crowd at bay, but only succeeded in getting the mourners to form a tight-knit ring beyond the reach of the officers who stood by the grave. When the funeral dispersed, some mourners resisted police efforts to scatter the crowd and even began rioting.

The event, the violations, the strange and casual disregard for the virus rules even at the funeral of a beloved rabbi felled by that very virus, seem par for the course in significant parts of the Haredi community. Scarcely a day goes by that doesn’t offer another example of contempt for the virus restrictions by some Haredi group or another.

Even those who strive to sympathetically explain the cultural gaps that drive the community’s resistance to social distancing are left stunned at the rampant violations

No one is surprised, then, when the government’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu tells the coronavirus cabinet, as he did on Monday, that Haredi morbidity rates are four times those of the general population, or that Haredim, scarcely 12 percent of Israel’s population, account for 40% of new cases being detected.

Expressions of resentment at Haredi behavior are widespread among non-Haredim, as might be expected. Even those who strive to sympathetically explain the cultural gaps that drive the community’s resistance to social distancing — the centrality of communal prayer and ritual, the large families crowding in small apartments in that impoverished population, the religious education system based on traditional forms of one-on-one textual study — are left stunned at the rampant violations.

There is another group troubled and frustrated by Haredi behavior: the Haredim themselves

But there is another group troubled and frustrated by Haredi behavior: the Haredim themselves, whose acknowledgment of their community’s failures to cope with the pandemic, and the accompanying frustration and despair, now dominate their media and politics. Accusations of betrayal course through the community’s internal debates.

Haredi Jews from the Hasidic sect of Shomrei Emunim attend the funeral of Rabbi Refael Aharon Roth, 72, who died from the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, Israel, August 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Anger at moysrim

Earlier this week, one Haredi political analyst had an explanation for the growing anger among non-Haredi Israelis at the widespread flouting of coronavirus restrictions.

“Let’s be clear here,” Ishay Cohen, the political analyst at Kikar Hashabat, a major Haredi news outlet, wrote on Twitter. “The reporters and flacks who exhaustively document the Hasidic courts, they’re the ones causing incitement against the Haredi public.”

To be even clearer, Cohen was referring to Haredi reporters and publicists.

“Everyone should act in accordance with the dictates of their rabbis, true — even if we don’t understand your path,” he said, referring to Hasidic sects that openly, and at their rabbis’ instructions, flout social distancing rules. “But there’s no commandment to publicize videos of Hasidim gathering in contravention of the restrictions, just to poke a finger in the eye of the secularists.”

Police hold Haredi mourners back at the funeral of Pittsburgher Rebbe Mordechai Leifer in the Israeli city of Ashdod on October 5, 2020. (Flash90)

In other words, it’s one thing for your rebbe to tell you that it’s okay to disobey the guidelines, but quite another to rush to tell the whole country about it.

Dudi Zilbershlag (Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

One of the Haredi Twitter users who responded to Cohen’s frustration was much less charitable. Dudi Zilbershlag is one of the Israeli Haredi community’s best-known political operators, a successful former political strategist for Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, a founder of Haredi media outlets, and a ubiquitous voice on Haredi affairs in Israel’s broader media landscape.

“I question the nobility of their intentions,” Zilbershlag said of the Haredi videographers uploading all the footage of the rule-breaking to social media. “This is their way, to go out there and do harm — and the harm is terrible. The photograph yesterday from Kiryat Gat was accompanied by the caption, ‘according to the restrictions,’ just to protect the writer from being included in the growing list of moysrim,” Zilbershlag charged.

The photograph showed cops visiting a Haredi seminary in the southern town of Kiryat Gat to verify that virus restrictions were being followed; they entered a crowded room, according to reports, to receive the blessing of the local Hasidic rebbe. (Police later refuted that account, saying in a statement that it was “a clear distortion of reality and the picture was taken out of context.”) The photograph snapped of that meeting, and shared eagerly by the Hasidic sect’s Twitter-savvy publicists, showed people standing at close quarters, a fan blowing the air around the room and some of those in attendance lacking proper masks.

Haredi Jewish men from the Karlin Hasidic sect cover themselves with prayer shawls as they pray during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, in Jerusalem, October 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Moysrim are informers, with the connotation of the sort of informers who would tattle on fellow Jews to an anti-Semitic Czarist commissar. The term is now heard in Haredi parlance in reference to those who notify the Israel Police about large gatherings in Haredi population centers — and for those who, in their eagerness to spread the gospel of their rebbe’s every daily act, end up spreading growing anger and bitterness at their community’s rule-flouting.

Zilbershlag’s accusation, then, is astounding. Cohen is angry at certain Hasidic sects not only for breaking the rules but for flaunting that fact online and thereby driving resentment against Haredim. Zilbershlag’s response: They’re doing it on purpose. That is, there are elements in the Haredi community intentionally generating hatred of Haredim among the rest of the Israeli population.

No escape

During the cholera epidemic that struck his city of Vilna in 1848, Rabbi Israel Salanter told his followers that they were permitted to eat in small portions during the Yom Kippur fast if they feared that strict adherence to the fast would weaken them and render them more susceptible to the illness.

According to a later account of the decision by his son Yitzhak Lipkin, the great Lithuanian sage was concerned not only about his community’s health but about its reputation as well. He feared that a fast that weakened his followers during an epidemic would lead non-Jews to say “that it is for the faith of Israel that they brought the sickness upon themselves.”

Police officers clash with Haredi men during a protest against the enforcement of coronavirus restrictions in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim, October 4, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Haredism is a strange phenomenon. That’s not a subjective judgment from outside, it’s one of the elemental parts of Haredism’s conscious purpose: to be strange. Haredi rabbis explain that they dress differently from their surrounding community not only because their forebears did, or because of some specific stricture of religious law, but also simply to stand out, to be visible representatives and bearers of a tradition that like them is detached from quotidian life and the vicissitudes of history taking place around them.

As one Hasidic rebbe once explained to this writer, the special dress meant that “I can’t stand in line for an inappropriate movie. I can’t get angry at someone cutting me in line” — at least not without dragging the whole ancient edifice of Judaism with him into the fight.

Sociologists who study Haredi society speak of the unique dress and other forms of deliberate strangeness as strategies for affirming and strengthening group cohesion. Barriers of appearance and culture between themselves and the outside world serve to signal loyalty to those within the circle. In studies, Haredim report high levels of life satisfaction and happiness, in no small measure due to the sense of tight-knit solidarity inculcated by this deliberate otherness.

The upshot: Haredim are not unaware of how they appear to the outside world; that awareness is central to their culture.

Haredi Jews pray as they do the Tashlich (“casting off”) ritual, a Jewish practice performed ahead of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, at the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv on September 24, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

It also explains why a Haredi analyst like Zilbershlag can accuse some Haredi reporters of deliberately triggering anti-Haredi sentiment in the rest of Israeli society. There are those who believe the barriers should be higher.

Alas, say prominent Haredi journalists, such strategies tend to work.

“It’s easy to spot us,” lamented Yossi Elituv, editor of Mishpacha, the most widely read Haredi weekly, in an interview with Channel 12 on Monday. “We’re wearing black, we have our top hats.” Media outlets, he charged, often show Haredim when covering coronavirus stories for no other reason than the compelling imagery produced by their distinctive dress.

And that carries a cost. “When you have a government that isn’t functioning, that’s pitting Israelis against one another, and when [non-Haredi journalists] want to tell a story about an entire country that’s collapsed in the last seven months, about a leadership that fled to its own private struggles, leaving the rest of the nation to bleed out — then you suddenly find the Haredim.”

Police officers close synagogues and hand out fines to Haredi Jews in Jerusalem’s Bukharim neighborhood, following government restrictions imposed as part of the effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, April 6, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Their sheer visibility, Elituv believes, makes them a convenient stand-in for a broader collapse, and that has led to a predictable response from the Haredim themselves: “In the last seven months, the Haredi citizen’s trust [in anything beyond the Haredi community] has collapsed.”

Aryeh Erlich, a Haredi media personality who anchors a talk show on Israel Radio, tells a similar story.

“Haredim are a very distinctive community, painted in a very identifiable palette. You can locate them easily in a synagogue, photograph them with their shtreimels and top hats, record tishes [celebratory meals at the rebbe’s table], and them leaving services on Yom Kippur. They’re not just regular Israelis ignoring the restrictions at the beach or the park — that’s not a story, that’s just some citizen disobeying,” he said.

And Haredim are frustrated.

“Weakening adherence to the rules is a natural human response to almost eight months of suffocation. Remember that on Passover [in April], not a single synagogue was open, not a single tish, nothing. But time passes, the situation is reassessed, human nature tends to play down, and the result is across-the-board relaxation,” he said.

Haredi men and women walk in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim, September 23, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The anti-Netanyahu protests don’t help. Those protests “don’t justify” Haredi rule-breaking, but they partly explain it, Erlich said. “We all know that one of the Ten Commandments of Israeliness — and Haredim are no different here — is ‘never be the sucker’.”

To combat the “ignorance, the ‘trust me’ mentality, the maddening laxity” of the Haredi response to the pandemic, he said, the rest of Israeli society must engage with the Haredi community, “invest every resource possible in explaining — without patronizing! — and trying to get into the psychology and to understand.”

Erlich’s is a call for understanding to triumph over resentment. It sounds noble enough until one realizes it’s a plea born in despair.

An anxious exhaustion has set in across broad swaths of the Israeli Haredi community, which feels uniquely threatened by the pandemic and the lockdown. Haredi journalists and leaders don’t know how to get their communities to abide by the government-set restrictions, even as the virus cuts a deadly path through their neighborhoods, felling family members and beloved rabbis.

They know, keenly and viscerally, how bad they look. They have no idea what to do about it.

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