'For God's sake, we cannot bend any of the rules'

Hasidic rabbi who had COVID rips into Haredi violations: ‘How did we get here?’

Karlin-Stolin leader Baruch Meir Yaakov Shochet laments ‘contempt for lives’ in the ultra-Orthodox community, invokes Jewish obligation to safeguard life

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews from the Karlin (Hasidic dynasty) praying according to the social distancing rules outside their synagogue in Jerusalem on August 10, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews from the Karlin (Hasidic dynasty) praying according to the social distancing rules outside their synagogue in Jerusalem on August 10, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The leader of the Karlin-Stolin Hasidic sect, who has recovered from COVID-19, has lamented health violations among the ultra-Orthodox community, while strongly urging his followers to heed the guidelines.

Rabbi Baruch Meir Yaakov Shochet, 66, was hospitalized earlier this month in Netanya with the virus. His small Hasidic sect, which numbers several thousand followers, has been strictly following the Health Ministry guidelines and was the first Hasidic community to shutter its synagogues and ritual baths in March when the pandemic began.

In a taped message this week, Shochet said: “It amazes me that particularly in the Haredi community there is such contempt for the lives of others. What happened to us, how did we get here?”

“For God’s sake, we cannot bend any of the rules, under any circumstances. This is not child’s play, it’s life and death and the essence of the law,” he added, according to Hebrew media reports.

Underlining the Jewish law to safeguard life, Shochet added: “Can it be that some of them have forgotten the simple laws of pikuah nefesh, which is the basis of Judaism? We all hear and see so many cases in which people are enduring suffering and pain, are sick and dying.

“I understand that it’s very difficult to be in constant tension to observe [the rules], but we must do it,” the rabbi continued. “This is the will of God and we should be happy for the opportunity we’ve been given to protect human life.”

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community has faced mounting criticism over widespread disregard for rules put in place by the government to combat the coronavirus, which led to the community being particularly hard-hit. In early October, officials said 40 percent of all new coronavirus infections were coming from the ultra-Orthodox, though it constitutes only approximately 12% of the population.

Videos have proliferated in recent weeks showing continued refusal to comply with lockdown rules.

The virus has also infected some of the community’s top leaders, including the head of its Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) branch, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, 92, and the leaders of the Belz and Sanz Hasidic sects.

Since the second national lockdown began last month over the High Holidays, some Hasidic groups, including the Belz Dynasty and hardline groups in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim, have been openly flouting the rules banning gatherings for prayer and religious ceremonies. Others, like the Ger, Sanz, and Karlin-Stolin sects have adopted the health precautions and warned of the dangers of the virus.

Earlier this month, the funeral of Rabbi Mordechai Leifer, 65, known as the Rebbe of Pittsburgh, in Ashdod at the height of the lockdown drew thousands of followers. The burial ended with clashes between mourners and police. Police had permitted around 300-400 to take part in the event, but as far larger numbers of participants arrived, angry confrontations developed between police and participants.

Leifer had died of COVID-19.

Haredi Jews attend the funeral of the Pittsburgher Rebbe Mordechai Leifer in the Israeli city of Ashdod on October 5, 2020. (Flash90)

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