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Hundreds of maskless Haredim crowd in Jerusalem for Hanukkah candle-lighting

Video shows members of Pnei Menachem community failing to follow any health guidelines on eighth night of holiday, amid ongoing rise in infections

Members of the Pnei Menachem community in Jerusalem celebrate Hanukkah without adhering to coronavirus restrictions, December 17, 2020 (video screenshot)
Members of the Pnei Menachem community in Jerusalem celebrate Hanukkah without adhering to coronavirus restrictions, December 17, 2020 (video screenshot)

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox revelers took part in a mass Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony in Jerusalem Thursday, failing to wear masks or maintain any social distancing, footage from the event showed.

Participants were members of Rabbi Shaul Alter’s Pnei Menachem community.

It was the latest case of some parts of Israel’s Haredi population failing to adhere to coronavirus guidelines, even as the country’s infections rise and health officials warn of worse to come.

Though many Haredim do keep to virus guidelines, some sects have been conspicuous in their refusal to do so, often leading to infection rates far higher than those in the general population.

Figures from the Health Ministry Thursday showed a significant morbidity rise in Haredi communities, where one in nine tests have come back positive. The data put the percentage of positive tests in the ultra-Orthodox sector at 10.6% with every carrier infecting 1.58 others on average.

In a Thursday briefing with reporters, the ministry’s public health services division head Sharon Elrai said that 12.8 percent of the total positive cases in Israel are from Haredi communities, despite the sector making up 6.7% of the total samples.

Medical experts estimate the ultra-Orthodox have accounted for about one-third of the country’s coronavirus cases, despite making up just 12% of the population.

Health officials told Channel 12 that the increase in movement and gatherings over the Hanukkah holiday will likely lead to a dramatic rise in case numbers.

Officials fear the coming weeks could see 5,000-6,000 new cases diagnosed a day and as many as 800 seriously ill patients by the end of January. Recent days have seen the daily case count approach 3,000.

An initial virus outbreak earlier this year hit the Haredi community hard after top rabbis advised against adopting Health Ministry orders that were aimed at curbing the virus spread but would have disrupted ultra-Orthodox community life. Pushback against some Health Ministry directives continues in some parts of the community.

Ultra-Orthodox jewish man attend the funeral of late Rabbi Aharon David Hadash, spiritual leader of the Mir Yeshiva, in Jerusalem, on December 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Holidays have often seen synagogues packed, and mourners have thronged funerals on several occasions.

The ultra-Orthodox are not the only ones who have struggled. Israel’s Arab minority also has experienced disproportionately high infection rates, in large part because of the popular custom of holding large weddings. Young Israelis, Jewish and Arab, flocked to beaches and parties. And many middle-class Israelis have participated in mass demonstrations against Netanyahu as the economy has suffered and unemployment has soared.

Meanwhile top ultra-Orthodox Rabbis Chaim Kanievsky, Gershon Edelstein and Shalom Cohen have recommended that their communities vaccinate against the coronavirus.

The three spiritual leaders asked for a medical opinion on the matter from Rabbi Elimelech Firer, who heads a prominent charitable medical organization. That opinion was released on Tuesday in the names of Kanievsky, Edelstein and Shalom, who conclude that “anyone who has the option of getting the vaccine should do it,” saying the shot has been proven safe under standard, accepted scientific methods.

Israel is gearing up to begin a mass vaccination program next week, but health officials are concerned about public hesitance to be immunized.

The issue is particularly sensitive in the ultra-Orthodox community, where rabbinic leaders govern public attitudes. Adding to the problem has been the recent appearance in ultra-Orthodox areas of unsigned posters urging against taking the vaccine.

A group of ultra-Orthodox men wear protective face masks following government measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, as they walk in Jerusalem’s Old City, July 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Polls have shown that 50 to 75 percent of Israelis are leery of getting the coronavirus vaccine shot, apparently out of fears that the rush to produce an inoculation may have compromised its safety.

Israel is taking delivery of millions of vaccine shots, beginning with the Pfizer inoculation, which has been approved for use in the US by the FDA.

The Health Ministry on Monday told health maintenance organizations that Israel’s COVID-19 vaccination drive will kick off next week, with members of the general public to begin receiving vaccinations on December 23.

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