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'God, I know you are putting us to a test'

Father of ZAKA emergency rescue chief dies of COVID-19, days after his mother

Amid lockdown violations in ultra-Orthodox communities, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav has said rabbis have ‘blood on their hands’ for disdaining COVID rules

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav (L) with his father Menahem Meshi-Zahav (R), in an undated photo. (Courtesy: ZAKA spokesperson)
Yehuda Meshi-Zahav (L) with his father Menahem Meshi-Zahav (R), in an undated photo. (Courtesy: ZAKA spokesperson)

The head of the ZAKA emergency response organization said on Saturday that his father has died from COVID-19, days after his mother succumbed to the disease.

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, an ultra-Orthodox man, has pushed for greater vigilance toward the coronavirus in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community.

In an interview with The Times of Israel this week, he said that rabbis have “blood on their hands” for his mother’s death.

Meshi Zahav’s younger brother, Moshe, also died last month.

On Saturday evening, Meshi-Zahav announced his father’s death in a Facebook post where he wrote: “God, I know you are putting us to a test, a hard and painful test…”

עלה המוות בחלוננושבר על שבר על שבר הושברנומכה אחר מכהאחי הצעיר משה ז"לאמי מורתי ז"לועכשיו אבי מורי ז"לכל זה בתוך…

Posted by ‎יהודה משי זהב – Yehuda Meshi zahav‎ on Saturday, January 23, 2021

In October, Meshi-Zahav rang alarm bells about conduct in ultra-Orthodox communities in an impassioned Times of Israel interview. He said 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. Because of those rabbis’ disdain for COVID-19 rules, his cautious voice didn’t stand a chance when his mother decided to hold a family Hanukkah party, he said.

“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 with his mother Sarah, in an undated photo. (Courtesy: Mendy Hachtman)

“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 earlier this week, regarding his mother.

Ultra-Orthodox 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 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.

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.

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

On Saturday, the head of the Vizhnitz Hasidic dynasty, situated mainly in Bnei Brak and Beit Shemesh, called for ultra-Orthodox schools to reopen Sunday, in defiance of lockdown measures.

Police stand guard after authorities closed a yeshiva that was operating in violation of lockdown orders, in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, January 22, 2021.(Flash90)

“This is crucial for us,” Rabbi Yisroel Hager said in a message to his followers Saturday, according to the Walla news site.

Dozens of Haredi educational institutions are expected to open Sunday, the news site reported, despite lockdown rules prohibiting schools from operating.

Police stated they would continue to enforce virus restrictions “in all communities,” Hebrew-language media reported Saturday.

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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