Haredim have finally begun embracing social distancing. Why did it take so long?
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Haredim have finally begun embracing social distancing. Why did it take so long?

Information took too long to filter into the insular ultra-Orthodox world, and some key rabbis didn’t grasp the pandemic danger. Now Israel braces for the consequences of the delay

Police arrest an ultra-Orthodox man as they close a synagogue in the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem for violating emergency directives to contain the coronavirus, on March 30, 2020. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Police arrest an ultra-Orthodox man as they close a synagogue in the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem for violating emergency directives to contain the coronavirus, on March 30, 2020. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Resentment of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox minority has been growing in recent weeks, fueled by news reports and social media posts highlighting their apparent disregard for government-mandated social distancing regulations.

Reports of yeshivas staying open despite closure orders and video clips of illicit public weddings and prayer services have generated widespread outrage on social media, with critics accusing the Haredim of acting with contempt toward their fellow citizens, and even of being murderers.

With ultra-Orthodox patients dramatically over-represented among those hospitalized with the virus, and ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods found to have the country’s highest infection rates, the outrage has steadily grown.

However, the situation is more complicated than it appears on the surface and a deeper look reveals a diverse and complicated community, many of whose members are cut off from sources of information that most secular and moderately religious Israelis take for granted. Moreover, while there have been significant delays in the implementation of Health Ministry regulations, in recent days, Haredim have increasingly accepted the extreme measures necessitated by the pandemic.

Flouting the rules

Much of the public indignation can be traced back to mid-March, when the government ordered a nationwide closure of schools and universities in an effort to slow down the spread of the coronavirus and prevent the country’s health care system from being overloaded. While secular and national-religious educational institutions immediately shut their doors, some in the Haredi sector stayed open.

Many of the schools and yeshivas ignoring the new regulations took their lead from rabbis Chaim Kanievsky and Gershon Edelstein, heads of the Ponovitz yeshiva in Bnei Brak, a city just east of Tel Aviv. Kanievsky is considered the most prominent leader of the Lithuanian branch of non-Hasidic Haredi Orthodoxy, which has hundreds of thousands of followers.

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

Despite appeals from the Netanyahu administration and the Israel Police, Kanievsky maintained, in the words of one member of his inner circle, that “canceling Torah study is more dangerous than the coronavirus.” Many in the Lithuanian community believe that Torah study has ontological significance beyond the mere attainment of knowledge and that it serves to protect the larger community from harm.

These rulings coincided with videos of large ultra-Orthodox weddings, their participants flouting the ever-tighter restrictions on public gatherings.

Public anger was further fueled by the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to call for a nationwide day of fasting and prayer last week, which would have seen thousands of Jews attend synagogues across the country.

While the social distancing regulations in force at the time permitted up to 10 people, spaced two meters apart, in a synagogue at any one time, critics believed that the measure went against the spirit of the Health Ministry’s recommendation that citizens stay indoors as much as possible.

In the end, the rabbinate moved the event online, holding a massive prayer gathering via video-link. By March 25, the rabbinate had ordered all synagogues closed, recommending that people pray outside in small, widely spaced groups.

This decision came on the heels of the release of new epidemiological data showing that a significant number of Israelis with COVID-19 contracted the coronavirus at a synagogue. By the beginning of this week, public prayers were totally banned.

This did not go over well with some members of the Haredi community and videos of illicit prayer groups immediately began circulating on the internet. In one case, police arrested six people in the ultra-Orthodox city-settlement of Modiin Illit on Wednesday. In another, police shuttered a synagogue in the Haredi city of Bnai Brak, fining 15 people for attending services.

Other infractions have also generated indignation among non-Haredi Israelis. On Sunday, hundreds of members of the so-called Jerusalem Faction, a hardline Lithuanian group, took part in a funeral procession in Bnai Brak, with hundreds of people attending the midnight funeral, walking closely together as they accompanied an ambulance carrying the body through the city’s streets.

The group subsequently obeyed social distancing regulations at the funeral of the wife of one of their leaders on Wednesday.

Last Sunday, Haredi extremists clashed with police as officers worked to ensure compliance with lockdown orders, pelting cops with stones. This Monday, fringe extremists threw rocks at medics attempting to carry out coronavirus tests.

Changing course

However, most of these were the actions of fringe extremists groups. As the coronavirus began to spread within the Haredi community, its mainstream leaders began taking things more seriously.

By Sunday, Kanievsky had made an about-face, ruling 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.

His ruling followed a similar one by Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, the head of the rabbinical courts of the anti-Zionist Edah Haredit community, who on March 19 had called on his followers to adhere to doctors’ instructions, terming it a life or death situation.

“It is important to listen to the instructions issued by doctors, if God forbid there is concern they may not be able to be saved later,” Sternbuch said.

Frightening statistics

Haredi cities have led the country in numbers of coronavirus cases. As of Wednesday morning, a total of 730 people in Bnai Brak had the virus. In Jerusalem, a total of 780 people had the virus, up from 650 a day earlier.

Much of the increase is seen as emanating from the ultra-Orthodox community. According to Channel 12 news, double-digit increases were also recorded in several other cities with large ultra-Orthodox populations. Haredim generally have large families, live in dense urban areas and engage in a lifestyle that puts a premium on community engagement, all factors that could facilitate the virus’s spread.

An ultra-Orthodox man walks by a poster about the coronavirus in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim on March 31, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Police on Tuesday set up checkpoints around Bnei Brak and were checking IDs of anyone trying to enter, as the government moved toward placing a cordon around the city of nearly 200,000. That cordon tightened further in the course of Wednesday.

As Bnei Brak emerged as a center of the epidemic, and Haredim as a disproportionate number of those affected by corona, Avraham Rubinstein, the city’s Haredi mayor, urged residents to “wake up!”

He said the city was seeing the highest infection rate in the country, with “the forecast far more frightening.” Rubinstein called on the public to “stop with the wise-guy minyans [quorum of 10 Jewish adults required for prayer], keep your distances, and stop the crowding and congestion at supermarkets. Just stay at home and be careful, this is dangerous.”

Attitudes finally appear to be changing on the Haredi street, with increasing numbers self-quarantining and the streets of religious towns like Beit Shemesh gradually emptying out.

In one recent video making its way around the internet, a Haredi man in Bnei Brak can be seen yelling at a group of people who had gathered for an illegal prayer.

“Get out of here, murderers,” the man shouted as people, some in prayer shawls, appeared to walk away from a synagogue, though at least one man was seen going back in. “I’ll report you 10 times. From now on, I’ll call the police every time.”

Why it took so long

One Orthodox psychiatrist who treats members of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community (and who asked not to be identified in this article) told The Times of Israel that part of the problem stems from deeply embedded social values relating to self-sacrifice and the performance of religious obligations under adverse circumstances.

When the Nazis banned putting on tefillin (phylacteries), Orthodox Jews continued even at the risk of their lives, he explained. “Everybody learned in school that mitzvot (Torah commandments) are the most important thing.”

“Exactly what we were good at and what we were taught was righteous is now a problem and getting us into trouble,” he continued, explaining that it took time to understand the new restrictions through the lens of public health rather than religious persecution.

Many Israelis looking for a scapegoat have seized on the Haredi community’s delays as a reason for anger, he also said.

“Everybody is looking to be upset at a person right now because we’re so upset and scared and worried. There is a desire for an outlet for aggression and anger that nobody took care of this. We want someone to take care of us and someone to take the blame. With infectious diseases it’s easy to group and blame people. People want to find a group to be upset with [and] in Israel people are picking on the ultra-Orthodox.”

Increased awareness of the seriousness of the problem is likely one of the root causes of the turnaround in the Haredi community. Earlier this month, the head of a kollel, or full-time yeshiva for married men, complained to this reporter that aside from a few Health Ministry posters, he didn’t feel there was much of an outreach effort to his community with accurate health information.

Health Ministry posters calling on Haredim to stay home over Passover, March 31, 2020. (Sam Sokol)

He said that many Haredim, who eschew home internet, smartphones and television, were getting their information secondhand from friends who have smartphones.

The Health Ministry and the United Hatzalah first responder organization have been attempting to remedy this situation, with new poster campaigns aimed at educating the Haredi public regarding the extent of the danger.

“How is this Passover different from other Passovers,” one Health Ministry poster asks. “This Seder night everyone will be in their homes.”

“Do not leave your homes, period,” reads one poster produced by United Hatzalah. “The leaders of the generation ruled that no minyanim should be held, even outdoors with ten people, as it is endangering lives. Sophistry and debate may result in those you love losing their lives.”

The consensus among both experts and members of the Haredi community is that a lack of information played a key role in causing the belated response in the wider ultra-Orthodox community.

“There was a great delay in getting people from the community to behave differently” because Haredim do not always have access to the same sources of information as the general population, Dr. Gilad Malach, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, told the Times of Israel.

Because Haredim also did not have access to the same disturbing footage from Italy and other countries that produced a visceral reaction among other Israelis, they were less aware and felt less of a need to change their behavior.

“The second thing is there no full trust in the state,” he continued. “Haredi society lives in its enclave culture by itself and there is no automatic trust in the rules of the state even if it refers to health.”

Malach said that especially when it comes to religious activities, Haredim are unlikely to obey the national authorities without the permission of their rabbis, which likely accounts for why the community only began to approach full compliance with regulations after “two weeks of delay.”

“My impression now is in general the majority keep the rules,” he said.

‘Talk to us’

Moreover, he added, while it was impossible for the government to connect with every important rabbi, it should have “at least put an effort” to contact the leaders of various local communities and “to get them to the understanding that we are in emergency situation.”

An ultra-Orthodox youth wears a face mask in the neighborhood of Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, on March 16, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It took time for a part of the community to understand the severity of the matter,” said Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the chairman and founder of the ZAKA voluntary emergency service organization and a former member of the extreme fringe of the Haredi world.

While “there’s a few small communities that aren’t obeying the community” because “they think it’s a Zionist attack on the Haredim,” around “95% of Haredim are obeying and the rabbis said to observe the rules.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

One problem, he said, is that while Health Minister Yaakov Litzman is himself Haredi and “should know” how, his people “didn’t speak to this community in its language.”

According to Eli Shlezinger, a journalist for the ultra-Orthodox Behadrei Haredim news site, “the Haredi public listens only to their rabbis.”

“In order to get the Haredi community to do something,” he explained, “you need to get to the rabbis to explain to them, by way of professional experts in a respectful way and very clearly, what the picture is and what the danger is. They didn’t do this.”

“The rabbis didn’t really know what was happening or how dangerous it was.”

Shlezinger recalled a conversation between an acquaintance and the rabbi of a Haredi community in which the rabbi downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic, stating that people were “making too much drama out of it.”

However, when his friend pulled out his smartphone and showed him a long list of sick Haredim in New York, many of whom he knew, the rabbi’s attitude began to change and he said, “Listen, if this is what is happening, then whatever the Health Ministry is saying, we need to go even further.”

Hasidic leaders like the rebbes of the Belz and Gerer Hasidic sects, he said, have been taking this hardline approach to protecting public health.

Standing by their rabbi

While some critics have blamed part of the spread of corona in the Haredi community on delays implementing social distancing caused by rabbis like Kanievsky, some of his followers won’t hear of it.

“We go by what Rav Kanievsky and Edelstein say. We don’t move from what they say, so when they started to warn us we listened,” said Eliyahu, a 27-year old full-time kollel student from the Jerusalem suburb of Telz-Stone, an ultra-Orthodox community that has been hit hard by the pandemic.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at his home in Bnei Brak on December 26, 2019. (Yaakov Nahumi/Flash90)

When the government said they must close the yeshivas, the rabbis said that it was the wrong time to do so because learning is the “protection of the community,” he said, citing Kanievsky as saying that if people were still going to the army, students should still go to yeshiva because “we are safeguarding all of the world with our Torah.”

Asked if the delay between that pronouncement and the rabbis’ decision to call on people to learn at home had exacerbated the crisis, Eliyahu inaccurately said that there was only a one-day difference between the government’s call for closures and the rabbis’ decision to follow suit.

He also said that he believed that a lack of information contributed to some people not taking the crisis seriously, noting that many of his neighbors did not have access to regular media and “they didn’t know how serious it is.”

Avraham Zuroff, a Haredi writer living in Modiin Illit, had a slightly different take, noting that increasing numbers of mainstream Haredim have been purchasing internet-enabled smartphones in recent years. However, he said it took time for many Israelis, and not just in the Haredi community, to internalize the severity of the situation.

“I think people were taking notice but it was a sort of delayed reaction,” he said. “My observation, what I saw in the general community where I live, was that with each new regulation they were [still] holding by the previous rules.”

He cited the actions of secular Israelis who went to the beach despite urgent calls for them to stay home.

William Kolbrenner (courtesy)

William Kolbrenner, a professor of English Literature at Bar-Ilan University and a resident of the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Bayit Vegan, said that he tried on multiple occasions to convince his neighbors to observe the regulations more stringently but met with little success.

It was not until the leading rabbis endorsed this view that people began to act, he told The Times of Israel.

“In my view, this is what normal people in the religious community were waiting for, to be able to trust their best instincts, which was to stay home,” he said. “But the stigma of staying home when the name of Kanievsky was being invoked was too great. When [his call to not go to synagogue] came out, people thought ‘Thank God, I can stay home’ and from that point on they things changed.”

Rabbi Shmuel Pappenheim, a Toldot Aharon Hasid from Beit Shemesh who was previously a spokesman for the Edah Haredit, said that the diversity of the Hasidic community meant that different sects responded at different speeds but that by now almost all Hasidim had been instructed by their leaders to maintain social distancing.

As an example, he said that when the brother of the rebbe of the Karlin sect refused to go into quarantine, the rebbe called him up and threatened to inform on him to the police.

“Ninety-nine percent are paying attention to instructions,” he said.

The concern for Israel’s authorities is how much damage has been done by the delay.

As for Pappenheim, he called the situation depressing, and had a very personal reason for saying so. Unfortunately, he said, he himself caught the coronavirus while abroad, and has been in isolation for the past 18 days.

JTA and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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