NEW YORK — Navigating through the adjoining New York State towns of Spring Valley and Monsey, ultra-Orthodox community advocate Rivkie Feiner narrated her drive via telephone to The Times of Israel, emphasizing the towns’ empty streets. For her, it’s certain proof that citizens are practicing social distancing in heavily ultra-Orthodox Rockland County.
“It’s a ghost town,” she told The Times of Israel. “The synagogue has been closed, the school has been closed. The stores, the shoe store, the grocery stores. It’s like Shabbos all the time. It’s very eerie — it’s very scary. Everything should be hustling and bustling.”
Rockland County is home to about 90,000 Haredi — or ultra-Orthodox — Jews, many of them Hasidim. Located about an hour’s drive from New York City, “the county has the largest Jewish population per capita of any US county, with 31.4%… being Jewish,” according to the New York State official website.
As Feiner drove she spoke about the impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on both her hometown of Monsey and ultra-Orthodox communities across the state.
With over 66,000 cases and 1,342 deaths reported as of this writing, New York State is now considered the epicenter of the coronavirus in the US. As it spreads across the state, the virus has hit religious communities particularly hard; as of March 30, Rockland County had reported more than 2,500 cases.
After several news stories emerged about large ultra-Orthodox gatherings despite strict social distancing guidelines, as well as reports of coronavirus clusters in places such as the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, which reported nearly 300 cases last week, communities faced increased scrutiny and were blamed for spreading the virus.
In New Jersey an Ocean County Fire Marshal posted to social media calling Jews “trash” and “dirty ones,” and said the highly ultra-Orthodox town of Lakewood should be turned into “a hole in [the] ground.” A Toyota dealership in Rockland County accused a visibly Orthodox Jewish man of spreading the virus and refused him service. In another separate incident a Lakewood man was arrested for making terrorist threats against Jewish residents.
But stories and videos of large ultra-Orthodox gatherings don’t reveal the full picture, said several religious community members and leaders. They claimed that news about the pandemic is being properly disseminated and the majority of people are following guidelines.
“There was initially a lot of confusion about what to do, but people are getting the message. More people have WhatsApp and Twitter than you think,” Feiner said, referring to the fact that internet use is often monitored or avoided altogether in the devout communities.
“There are also robocalls and people sharing texts,” Feiner said. Among the media channels the community turns to are Agudath Israel and Yeshiva World News, she said.
“And, it’s sad to say, but the number of deaths has also gotten the message through,” Feiner said. “Everybody knows someone who is sick, or at least knows someone through six degrees of separation.”
With the empty streets, it now appears the message to stay home has hit home — for the most part. There are still incidents where people aren’t complying with social distancing.
On March 30, Josef Neumann, who died from injuries sustained in an anti-Semitic mass stabbing attack perpetrated in Monsey this past December, was buried at the Viznitz Cemetery in Spring Valley. While many mourners stood on the periphery and practiced social distancing, dozens of men were filmed standing shoulder to shoulder near his coffin.
The insular Satmar Hasidic community residing in Kiryas Joel, located 55 miles north of New York City, was also slow to implement the state’s social distancing guidelines. Just last week its leaders closed all schools, synagogues and mikvahs, or ritual baths.
Organizations such as Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization that advocates for religious and civil rights, continue to stress the message that people must adopt healthcare guidelines, said Leah Zagelbaum, Agudath Israel’s vice president for media affairs.
#COVID19 demands a response that conflicts with elements of #OrthodoxJewish tradition. How to navigate medical guidelines and Jewish law? The rabbinic leadership of @AgudahNews explains it:@nytimes @PIX11News @jdforward @avitalrachel @aefeldman @estarkmiller96 pic.twitter.com/Rl5UIsEGnz
— Leah Zagelbaum (@LeahZagelbaum) March 20, 2020
The organization has amplified public service announcements over social media, including from the head of Agudath Israel Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, also known as the Novominsker Rebbe, as well as New York State Assembly Member Simcha Eichenstein, who sent a message to his constituents in Borough Park and parts of Midwood to stay home and save lives.
Additionally, a wide range of organizations signed onto a March 20 joint statement put together by the Agudath Israel, including the Orthodox Union, Young Israel movement, and Rabbinical Council of America — some of the country’s largest Orthodox groups.
For those who completely shun social media there are telephone news hotlines as well as vehicles circulating the neighborhoods with loudspeakers, said Zagelbaum.
“For the most part, it’s working,” Zagelbaum said. “I’m aware of a few holdout minyanim [prayer quorums] that took place last week, and quite a few impromptu groups that held services at great physical distance in streets or yards, but that seems to have been part of a winding down process.”
Thinking global, acting local
Before the coronavirus outbreak, weddings often drew 400 to 500 people. Now they are held in backyards and parking lots, with extended family joining in via Zoom. In another neighborhood an invitation went around for a shalom zachor, or gathering to welcome a baby boy. It’s traditionally celebrated Friday night with beer and chickpeas. Only now, with social distancing, the new father sent around beer and chickpeas in individual packets so his family and friends could mark the occasion in their own homes.
In some neighborhoods, people are now praying alone on their individual porches, but because everyone is on their porch at the same time there is a sense of togetherness, said Abby Stein, who was born and raised in the Hasidic community of Williamsburg.
Stein said that right now “even the most skeptical people believe” in the need for social distancing. “You get some fringe people who are defying guidelines, like in any group of people, but most people in the Hasidic community are listening to the rules.”
Although Stein, author of “Becoming Eve: My Journey from ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman,” left the community several years ago, she remains in contact with some family members. In recent conversations they told her people who initially ignored social distancing guidelines, especially during the Purim holiday, are now following the regulations.
Rabbi Aaron Raskin of Congregation B’nai Avraham told The Times of Israel that his Chabad community in Brooklyn Heights has found new and innovative ways to remain connected even while apart. Some use Zoom for Torah classes, others for more somber occasions such as condolence calls.
From the frontlines of anti-Semitism
As religious communities navigate the changing social fabric of daily life they are also contending with rising anti-Semitism directly tied to the coronavirus outbreak.
“This period of unfortunate darkness can give us an opportunity to overlook our individual problems and look at the world on a global level, so we can unite for a greater good,” Raskin said.
In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights that means the Kamin Health Urgent Care stays open in spite of a skeleton staff, said Yosef Hershkop, the center’s regional manager.
He added that the Chevra Kadisha, or religious burial society, is working to accommodate every family despite an impending shortage of personal protection equipment. And, Hershkop said, the Gedaliah Society, a network of Chabad men and women in healthcare fields, continues to put out notifications urging the community to stay vigilant and continue social distancing.
“I’m very proud of my community. I’d say 98 to 99 percent of people are listening,” Hershkop said.