Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study Torah in small 'capsule' groups at the Ateret Shlomo Yeshiva in the city of Modiin Illit, August 24, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Yossi Zeliger / Flash 90, shows ultra-Orthodox men studying Torah while wearing masks and in small 'capsule' groups to counter the coronavirus at the Ateret Shlomo Yeshiva in the city of Modiin Illit, August 24, 2020. Israel is also seeing a phenomenon of some Haredim violating COVID-19 rules
ToI investigates

Is ultra-Orthodox ideological disobedience fueling Israel’s soaring virus rate?

Top medic blames ‘irresponsible behavior,’ crowded living conditions; others call finger-pointing ‘borderline racism,’ ascribe surge to yeshivas’ reopening 10 days before schools

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Main image by Yossi Zeliger / Flash 90, shows ultra-Orthodox men studying Torah while wearing masks and in small 'capsule' groups to counter the coronavirus at the Ateret Shlomo Yeshiva in the city of Modiin Illit, August 24, 2020. Israel is also seeing a phenomenon of some Haredim violating COVID-19 rules

With Israel currently topping the world record for the rate of new daily cases of COVID-19 infection, some doctors are reaching an uncomfortable conclusion: that the actions of one community are disproportionately responsible for the surge.

“I’m afraid to draw this conclusion,” says Dror Mevorach, after a day on the COVID-19 wards at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center. “I’m not sure people will get it right, and they’ll see anti-Semitism and think I’m chasing the Orthodox, and I don’t want that at all.”

But he says he’s unable to ignore the scene in his wards, with numerous patients hospitalized soon after attending large indoor prayer services over Rosh Hashanah. “I expect, in a few days, to get a similar wave from Yom Kippur,” he commented.

Mevorach, Hadassah’s head of internal medicine, delivered his conclusion reluctantly, and stressed that living conditions, as well as conduct, have played a part in high infection levels of Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews. Still, “I do think that, in some sections, irresponsible behavior no doubt encouraged the spread of disease, among themselves and in Israel,” he said.

Dror Mevorach of Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, October 1, 2020 (Screen grab/Channel 12)

He spoke to The Times of Israel as the scale of the Jewish state’s coronavirus woes in a global context was becoming clearer than ever, and as Israeli health officials gave the nation hard statistics on just how much more common coronavirus is among Haredim than among other citizens.

Israel has an infection level for the last week that is almost three times higher than any other country, global data indicated on Tuesday. And on Wednesday, Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy told reporters that some 34% of those diagnosed with the virus in Israel were ultra-Orthodox, though the community constitutes approximately 12% of the population. On Thursday, the government’s COVID-19 czar, Ronni Gamzu, cited a higher figure still, saying that some 40% of recent confirmed cases were among the ultra-Orthodox.

Some other top doctors assiduously reject the kind of conclusion that Mevorach is reaching. “I think the objective problems facing Haredim are dominant, such as their living conditions,” said Jonathan Halevy, president of Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center.

Director General of Shaare Tzedek hospital Jonathan Halevy at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on June 28, 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Halevy, who was talking to The Times of Israel in an interview about the general situation, and was not specifically relating to Mevorach’s comments, said: “It’s borderline racism to come with accusations [of disproportionate ultra-Orthodox responsibility]. You see pockets of disobedience in every sector of Israeli society; you saw it in restaurants, cafes and pubs.”

In his view, Haredim were always destined to be hit hard due to their large families and dense living conditions, and their misconduct is being blown out of proportion.

Mevorach acknowledges the environmental issues that make Haredim prone to infection, and said their rates reflect a “multi-factorial” reality, but added that there’s no escaping a trend of people disregarding health directives, “as if they understand better, and don’t believe the guidance.”

He reported that some of his current patients were part of a 1,000-strong group that became infected after attending Rosh Hashanah prayers at the court of Yaakov Aryeh Alter, head of the Gur Hasidic sect.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox women wearing facemasks walk past border police officers at a checkpoint in a neighborhood in Jerusalem, amid measures put in place by Israeli authorities in a bid to stop the spread of COVID-19, on September 8, 2020. (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

In his view, Gur were the “most kosher” of all Hasidim in terms of attempts to take coronavirus precautions. He said they tried to put “capsules” in place, dividing worshipers in the large prayer hall into small groups, but found they didn’t work.

By contrast, he is riled by rabbis from some other Haredi communities who are, he said, “without shame, disregarding stipulations of government.” He thinks this led to many synagogues hosting crowds on Yom Kippur despite the tightening of lockdown rules.

Who’s breaking the rules?

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox sector comprises several different communities. In Hasidic communities, where group gatherings around the charismatic leader, or rebbe, play a major part in the religious life, violation of rules has been most widespread. It is from this sector that reports are emerging — to the chagrin of many secular Israelis — of mass gatherings.

Yehoshua Pfeffer (Courtesy)

In non-Hasidic communities — often referred to as Litvak or Lithuanian — regulations are being kept better but are still being bent, said Yehoshua Pfeffer, a Jerusalem-based Haredi rabbi from this community.

“In Kiryat Sefer and some other places, for example, they are organizing minyanim [prayer services] for coronavirus suffers, who are leaving their homes to go there, clearly in violation of regulations,” he told The Times of Israel. “So there’s an underlying concern to be safe, but not necessarily safe as per the regulations but rather as people themselves see fit.”

There have been rumors of clandestine Haredi attempts to aim at herd immunity, and of young people trying to get infected to advance this. These rumors are unconfirmed — but it’s clear that some yeshiva students are discussing the possibility of intentional infection for ostensibly pragmatic reasons.

“In my rabbinic capacity I’ve received questions from bohrim over whether it would be permitted to infect themselves for all sorts of reasons,” said Pfeffer, using the word for yeshiva students. “Some said they want to go into the winter, main study time in yeshivas, without concern of coronavirus.” His response was a clear no.

Students at a yeshiva in Rishon Lezion dance after the end of Yom Kippur, September 28, 2020 (Twitter screenshot)

Pfeffer, head of the Haredi Israel division at the Tikvah Fund, a philanthropic foundation focused on education, considers the phenomenon of ultra-Orthodox breaking of rules to be very real, saying it has been “widespread” in some communities, and there has been a “business as usual” attitude in many Hasidic courts.

Asked whether it is conduct, or circumstance, that is leading to the high infection rates, he said: “Without a doubt it’s a combination of the two. It’s true people live communally and in crowded neighborhoods, but it’s also a mindset. It’s also related to the approach that, in a way, some Haredim consider themselves a state within a state, in terms of education, in terms of community and in terms of culture.”

It is fair to expect Haredim to fall in line with national efforts, and if people don’t, to attribute some blame for spiraling numbers, but you can’t wholly pin the blame for Israel’s situation on Haredim

He said it is fair to highlight conduct in the Haredi community when trying to understand Israel’s coronavirus rates, but its impact should be kept in perspective. “It’s a partial conclusion,” he said, adding that he understands “resentment and anger” felt in mainstream Israel, but feels it’s important that this is viewed just as one of various factors that account for Israel’s coronavirus situation.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, followers of the Hasidic sect of Shomrei Emunim, wearing protective face masks amid concerns over the country’s coronavirus outbreak, attend the funeral of their Rabbi Refael Aharon Roth, 72, who died from the virus, in Bnei Brak, Israel, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

“It is fair to expect Haredim to fall in line with national efforts, and if people don’t, to attribute some blame for spiraling numbers, but you can’t wholly pin the blame for Israel’s situation on Haredim,” he said.

Pfeffer said that the insularity of Haredi communities, often a source of criticism, should actually temper the anger felt toward the community now. His logic is that interactions outside the community are limited, so while Haredim have high infection rates, spread outside their communities is limited.

‘Ideological disobedience’

Currently, six of the eight locales with Israel’s highest per capita incidence of coronavirus are predominantly Haredi. And Gamzu reportedly told ministers during Wednesday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting that ultra-Orthodox Israelis are 2.5 times more likely to test positive for the coronavirus.

Roughly 28.6 percent of virus tests administered in Haredi communities returned a positive result in recent days, compared to 13.4% of the tests from Arab communities and 11.9% of the tests in the rest of the country, data Gamzu presented to ministers on Wednesday showed, according to Channel 12.

The situation reflects a major mindset change between the end of the first wave and start of the second wave, according to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Benjamin Brown, an expert on Israel’s Haredi community, who constantly monitors its media channels and WhatsApp groups.

He told The Times of Israel: “In the first wave there was disobedience, but it wasn’t overt except for in radical circles, while in the second wave, people have become much more antagonistic, with an ideological disobedience.”

This explains the holding of mass weddings and large prayer gatherings, mostly in the Hasidic community, in violation of restrictions, he suggested.

A screenshot from a video said to show thousands of ultra-Orthodox at a wedding in Jerusalem, in violation of coronavirus restrictions, on August 5, 2020. (Screenshot/Channel 12)

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis aren’t in denial about the virus, but they are in some cases doubtful that restrictions are worth the sacrifice, Brown said. He stated: “We don’t hear Haredim, even in radical circles, saying it doesn’t exist but people feel, if it’s something inevitable, why change our lives over it? The main logic is that measures aren’t guaranteed to work.”

Other changes between the first and second waves, according to Brown, include the resignation of Yaakov Litzman, the health minister, who is Haredi, which meant that some in the community no longer felt a particular compulsion to follow the ministry’s directives.

Rabbi Elimelech Biderman and ultra-Orthodox Jews pray for forgiveness (Selihot) at the burial site of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai in Meron, northern Israel, September 12, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)

The issue of the Uman pilgrimage — a mass annual Rosh Hashanah visit to the grave of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov in Ukraine — wasn’t relevant in the first wave but became a major source of friction in the second wave, with Israel’s government trying to prevent the event. This caused anger in some communities, and thousands of pilgrims went anyway, reportedly resulting in coronavirus cases on 17 flights returning to Tel Aviv from Ukraine and Belarus.

Hasidic Jewish pilgrims gather in front of Ukrainian border guards at the checkpoint Novaya Guta near Novaya Guta, Belarus, September 18, 2020 (AP Photo)

Brown added that trust in the government, from the general public and from the Haredi public which has felt singled out by officials, is low, “and people are saying, ‘if the government is not managing this in the best way, why change our lives?’”

Trust between the Haredi community and government was impacted when coronavirus czar Gamzu was perceived as discriminating against the community. “A special sorry to the ultra-Orthodox community, which viewed my remarks and actions as offensive toward them and their customs,” Gamzu wrote in a pre-Yom Kippur message.

A head start on infection

But while Haredi conduct looms large in the way some Israelis interpret the community’s infection rates, the timeline of the current wave may suggest that the stage was set for the spike among Haredim when they did something that was entirely permitted: returning to studies after the summer break.

Ultra-Orthodox students study at the Kamenitz Yeshiva, in Jerusalem on September 2, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The ultra-Orthodox education system and Israel’s mainstream schools resumed studies after their vacations, both with the government’s blessing. But while most of Israel’s schools returned on September 1, the Haredi sector went back on August 21, giving it a head start for the spread of infection and almost two weeks more for the virus to spread before the state again halted studies.

Eran Segal, a virus statistics expert, gave a picture of how the current high level among Haredim has its roots in the reopening of the community’s education system. Segal, a computational biologist from the Weizmann Institute of Science, used the benchmark of what percentage of tests were positive, initially among the age group that studies in yeshivas, and then among others.

“This is how the virus spread in the ultra-Orthodox sector,” he wrote on Wednesday on Twitter. “One week after the opening of the yeshivot, on August 21, the percentage of positive tests in men aged 15 to 21 rose from 5% to 30%.”

Within two weeks, the virus had spread to ultra-Orthodox men aged 30 to 60, among whom positive test rates reached 43%. Now, elderly Haredi men, aged 70 to 80, are showing as positive in 28% of cases where people are tested, Segal wrote.

But it’s unclear to what extent cases arose from permitted educational frameworks, and to what extent they came from others, operating outside the rules. The news site Ynet reported Wednesday that it had obtained data that said that 26,500 students were in yeshivas that operated according to special coronavirus regulations, while another 16,000 studied in institutions that didn’t have the recommended capsule system, generally due to lack of physical infrastructure, and which operated without health supervision.

Mayor Yitzhak Ravitz of the ultra-Orthodox town of Kiryat Yearim (Courtesy)

In the Haredi town of Kiryat Ye’arim, Mayor Yitzhak Ravitz argued that whatever happened in recent weeks should have been prevented by a government lockdown imposed from late August when virus rates were spiraling — one that would have prevented the return to yeshivas and schools. The failure to enact such a lockdown was a “very big mistake” and Haredim are being blamed for the consequences of this failure, he said.

Ravitz thinks that when national leadership fails to act against the virus as necessary, and life is allowed to continue in more-or-less regular fashion, the Haredi community will inevitably be affected out of proportion to others due to its circumstances. “There is an explosion [of contagion] in the Haredi community, and we think it’s because of large families and the communal nature of life,” he said. “If, in a secular community, you see your neighbor once a week, we normally see them three times a day in synagogue.”

He believes that Haredim are being blamed for doing what other Israelis did: following their near non-lockdown routines, as signaled by the government. The impact of doing so was more extreme in Haredi communities than elsewhere, but the government should have taken this into account in its modeling, and made decisions that would have prevented the spike among Haredim as well as among others, he said.

Kiryat Ye’arim (Telz Stone), with one quarter of their residents in quarantine and 8 residents confirmed infected. March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In Ravitz’s town, unusually strict steps have been put in place to fight coronavirus. The local education imposes quarantine on the entire family after one member is exposed to a carrier, not just on the person who had the encounter. The municipality delivers groceries and meals to quarantined residents so there is no cause for violation, and does the same for the elderly, to encourage them to stay home.

If protests are permitted…

But he admits that the second lockdown has been poorly observed by some Haredim. He claims this is happening because the government undermined the credibility of the lockdown by making numerous exceptions to its rules, including allowing major demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to continue. Permission to protest created the impression that lockdown rules aren’t a matter of life and death but of political decision-making, he argued.

“The moment you see that there are things [ostensibly] more important than the coronavirus, like the protests, then everyone makes a decision about their priorities,” he said. “They say to themselves that there are things that are more important than lockdown.”

Ravitz said it’s inevitable that some Haredim would conclude that if rallies are allowed, communal prayer should be too, and take matters into their own hands.

Jewish men pray for forgiveness (Selichot), at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City on September 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Pfeffer disagrees with the protest-prayer nexus. “I would not give that theory too much credence,” he said. “It was used as a political card, as political leverage, more than anything. In people’s private mindset though, who cares? I don’t think it looms large.”

Pfeffer thinks that the main driver behind ultra-Orthodox disobedience is much simpler than many people suspect: a realization that the virus fight is going to be a very long haul.

“There’s a mindset that this isn’t going anywhere, so if ‘we’ want to keep the religious integrity of community, this is how ‘we’ do it,” he said.

“You hear that there is a concern for physical wellbeing, but a sense that the pandemic is not going away for a while, and living with it from ‘our’ perspective means doing so in line with what’s considered Jewish living, which includes mass gatherings with the rebbe and is very communal.”

He said that in this mindset, which he understands but rejects, there is even a sense that violators of coronavirus rules are making sacrifices for other religious Jews who are strictly keeping then, in order to ensure religious routine stays active. “Some say we’re holding the fort for all of you, for all of you Haredi Jews; we’re paying the price by making sure standards are kept.”

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