Head of hardline Eda Haredit, initially resistant on virus rules, is infected

Rabbi Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss’s staunchly anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox organization at first sought to avoid regulations before reversing course

Rabbi Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss, leader of the Eda Haredit, on June 16, 2010.  (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Rabbi Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss, leader of the Eda Haredit, on June 16, 2010. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The nonagenarian leader of the Eda Haredit, a hardline anti-Zionist Haredi group based in Jerusalem that initially sought to avoid some government regulations aimed at thwarting the spread of the coronavirus, has contracted the disease.

Rabbi Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss, 95, was diagnosed on Thursday after being tested the previous day. He had been admitted to the hospital on Wednesday with a high fever and low blood pressure, according to reports in Haredi media.

His positive test results were announced in a Yiddish audio message released by Rabbi Yitzchok Shlomo Bloi, the secretary to the Eda Haredit’s rabbinical court, calling for the ultra-Orthodox community’s prayers.

Weiss, 95, was a community leader in Antwerp before taking on the leadership of the Eda Haredit in 2004. He was born in Slovakia and arrived in Great Britain as part of the Kindertransport prior to the outbreak of World War II.

A medical worker wearing protective gear takes a swab from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man for a coronavirus test in Bnei Brak, March 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The group initially refused to shut down its affiliated educational institutions, closing kindergartens but keeping schools and yeshivas open in defiance of government guidelines. Its former spokesman said it did limit physical proximity there. On Monday, however, it released a notice instructing its followers in the ultra-Orthodox community to heed the Health Ministry’s orders or commit a “big sin.”

In the notice, the religious authority warned of the dangers of the pandemic and said all state instructions from medical authorities must be followed. It added that prayers can be conducted outdoors, if distance is kept between worshipers, in accordance with ministry rules which have since been superseded.

This followed another statement by Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, the head of the rabbinical courts of the Eda Haredit, who on March 19 called on his followers to adhere to doctors’ instructions, terming it a life or death situation.

The group is starkly opposed to Zionism and its followers, who number in the tens of thousands, refuse to accept any state funding. It wields considerable influence through its Badatz kashrut certification, which is considered the gold standard by many in the ultra-Orthodox world, even among members of competing groups.

The group generated intense controversy in 2018 when it revoked its stamp of approval from a winery, demanding that it ban its Ethiopian employees from coming in contact with its wine due to an ostensible doubt over their Jewishness.

Israeli security forces remove demonstrators from the road in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem on September 17, 2017 as they protest against a court ruling that could require them to serve in the army like their secular counterparts. The demonstration was organized by a particularly hardline group known as Eda Haredit. / AFP PHOTO / Ahmad GHARABLI

Members of the Eda Haredit have also engaged in violent demonstrations against the IDF and the state, fighting with police and blocking roads in protest of the government’s draft policies.

The coronavirus outbreak is taking a heavy toll on tight-knit ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, with many experiencing severe outbreaks and religious leaders falling ill in recent days.

In New York state, the influential Satmar rebbe, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum of Kiryas Joel, was diagnosed with the coronavirus causing COVID-19, the Satmar Hasidic community announced on March 21.

Satmar Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum gives a speech to thousands of his followers at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, New York, on June 3, 2018. (Screen capture: YouTube)

The 72-year-old rabbi, who leads one of the largest Hasidic sects in the world with tens of thousands of followers, spent that Sabbath in isolation in a room at his home on Zanz Street in the town north of New York City.

Rabbi Masoud Tubul, 64, the longtime head of the Beit Chana girls’ school in Paris’s Chabad Hasidic community passed away last week.

On March 22, Rabbi Yehuda Yaakov Refson, the seniormost emissary of the Chabad movement in Leeds, England, died of the coronavirus. British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis wrote in a statement that “it has been my privilege to work with this outstanding scholar and educator.” Mirvis called Refson the “devoted, caring and principled head of the Leeds Jewish community,” which has a few hundred members.

Orthodox and Haredi communities and media outlets in the New York area have been sharing lists of names of individuals seriously ill from the virus and asking fellow Jews to recite Psalms and pray for their healing.

Haredi cities have led Israel in numbers of coronavirus cases.

Nearly one in seven coronavirus carriers are from the predominantly ultra-Orthodox central city of Bnei Brak, which has emerged as a major hotspot in the outbreak, with some 900 cases, according to Health Ministry statistics published Thursday.

These 900 cases — out of the country’s total 6,211 — make it the city with the second highest number of cases after Jerusalem, with its 916 confirmed diagnoses out of a population roughly five times greater than that of Bnei Brak.

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.

JTA contributed to this report.

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