Growing number of Haredi schools said to reopen, flouting lockdown

Top rabbi Chaim Kanievsky reportedly approves move amid soaring virus case numbers and deaths; more institutions said likely to join in coming days

Haredi children head to school despite the government forbidding institutions from opening during a nationwide lockdown, January 17, 2021 (video screenshot)
Haredi children head to school despite the government forbidding institutions from opening during a nationwide lockdown, January 17, 2021 (video screenshot)

A growing number of ultra-Orthodox Torah schools are reopening despite government directives to remain shuttered as coronavirus infection rates remain at all-time highs, according to multiple reports Sunday.

The Haaretz daily reported that Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a central leader of the Haredi community, had authorized a number of schools to reopen, though officials close the rabbi did not confirm he did so. Kanievsky has previously ordered ultra-Orthodox schools to shut “for several days” following the intervention of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Walla News reported that schools in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak opened their doors to students Sunday. According to Globes, tens of thousands of students returned to schools.

These joined institutions of more extreme sects that have refused to close throughout the lockdown.

The Haaretz report said the limited opening of more schools Sunday would likely have a domino effect and lead to more and more returning to studies in the coming days.

An unnamed head of a Haredi school told Haaretz many ultra-Orthodox principals opposed opening under the current conditions, with the death toll and those seriously ill rising by the day. He said some had asked Kanievsky whether to open and he had replied in the affirmative, but asserted that it had been a mistake to ask at all.

Ultra-Orthodox institutions have repeatedly flouted government decisions throughout the pandemic, with authorities doing little to enforce the rules in the Haredi public. Critics have said Netanyahu is avoiding doing so so as not to anger his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

Police attempts to enforce health regulations are often met with violence, and both Haaretz and Walla said police often retreat and do not return when meeting resistance.

Thursday saw dozens of schools affiliated with hardline ultra-Orthodox groups open in breach of the lockdown. None of the educational institutions were known to have been fined or closed down by police.

Most of the schools that opened were in Jerusalem, along with Bnei Brak, Beit Shemesh, Ashdod, Elad and Modiin Illit, according to the report.

Policemen at a checkpoint to the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak on October 18, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Sunday there was “no point” continuing the lockdown if enforcement is selective.

“This week we will decide whether to extend the lockdown” beyond its current January 21 deadline, Gantz says during a tour of a contact-tracing center.

“If there isn’t equal enforcement, there is no point in continuing the lockdown,” he said.

Channel 12 reported that residents of ultra-Orthodox areas were operating a special phone line with many informants providing updates every time a police vehicle arrived, including what streets they were on.

The line was operating in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood and in several neighborhoods in Beit Shemesh, according to the report.

A Mea Shearim resident was quoted as saying police rarely come in any case, and leave quickly when they do.

“Everything is business as usual with us. Everything’s open,” he said.

Many reports have said major yeshivas are open. Hundreds of demonstrators clashed with cops who came to close one in Jerusalem and threw rocks and other objects at them.

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)

No arrests were made and several fines were issued.

The ultra-Orthodox community has significantly higher positive COVID-19 test rates (some 20 percent) than the general population (5%)

The cabinet meeting in which ministers will decide whether to extend the current tightened lockdown restrictions beyond January 21 has been set for Tuesday.

Government coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said Sunday that he would likely recommend extending the current lockdown restrictions beyond the January 21 expiration date, citing still-rising infections. But he expressed hope that the trend was starting to reverse.

“Over the past days we can see immense strain on the health care system,” Ash said. “There are about 1,200 serious patients, COVID-19 wards are 85 percent full, and hospitals are scaling back non-urgent procedures. The strain is expected to continue for several more days until we see a drop in infections.”

As of Sunday night, 1,945 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, of some 81,000 active cases, and 1,177 are in serious condition. The national death toll rose to 4,005, having surpassed 4,000 during the day and rising by some 1,000 over the past month alone.

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