Large sukkahs for mass gatherings seen going up in ultra-Orthodox areas

Giant structures capable of holding thousands throughout weeklong festival raise fears of continued outbreak in hard-hit communities

A giant sukkah presumably for mass gatherings is prepared in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim despite rocketing virus rates, September 30, 2020 (Screen grab/Ynet)
A giant sukkah presumably for mass gatherings is prepared in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim despite rocketing virus rates, September 30, 2020 (Screen grab/Ynet)

At least three ultra-Orthodox sects were reportedly preparing on Wednesday for mass gatherings in Jerusalem during the upcoming Sukkot festival, despite regulations against large groups and a surge of the coronavirus within the community.

Accounts published by Hebrew-language news sites identified several large sukkahs, temporary structures used by Jews during the Sukkot holiday, being built in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of the capital, raising fears of the virus continuing to be given a chance to spread in parts of the already hard-hit Haredi community.

Sukkot begins on Friday evening and lasts until October 9. During the holiday, many religious Jews have the tradition of eating meals and sleeping in sukkahs, which are generally purpose-built for the holiday outside the home. In Jerusalem’s tightly-packed ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, many households do not have space for individual sukkahs, an issue often dealt with via shared sukkahs.

Many ultra-Orthodox sects also build large sukkahs to host communal meals and other celebrations, some of which can hold thousands of people.

Ultra-orthodox Jews from the Vishnitz dynasty attend an event in a sukkah in Bnei Brak on October 12, 2014 (Dror garti/FLASH90)

According to the Walla news site, three Hasidic groups in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim were building giant sukkahs, capable of holding thousands of people on a daily basis throughout the weeklong holiday.

Sukkot at the Breslev synagogue in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim, October 16 2008 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The Walla report said the Toldos Aharon, Slonim and Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok sects set up the temporary structures on private land to avoid friction with the municipality.

A senior ultra-Orthodox source told Walla that they assumed other sects in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak were making similar preparations for the upcoming festival.

When the Jerusalem municipality was asked by the website about the sukkahs or any police involvement in the matter, there was no comment.

In addition, a large market for the sale of the four species used during the holiday was set up in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood Wednesday, according to the Yedioth Ahronoth daily. Such markets, usually a normal sight ahead of the holiday, have been banned this year by the government.

Child carries palm branches for a sukkah roof in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, September 30, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

Ministers on Wednesday approved fining anyone caught in a sukkah not their own NIS 500. It was not immediately clear if the owner of the sukkah would also be fined, or how the rule will affect communal sukkahs.

There has been growing criticism of the Haredi communities for not adhering to government guidelines, including continuing to host mass gatherings over the High Holiday period.

The community has been among the hardest hit by the virus in Israel, with many ultra-Orthodox cities leading the way in new daily infections.

The government’s COVID-19 czar, Ronni Gamzu, reportedly told ministers during Wednesday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting that ultra-Orthodox Israelis are 2.5 times more likely than the general public to test positive for the coronavirus.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men buy palm fronds to build a Sukkah, ahead of the upcoming holiday of Sukkot in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, Sept. 30, 2020 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy told reporters on Wednesday that 34 percent of those diagnosed with the virus in Israel were ultra-Orthodox, though the community constitutes only approximately 12% of the population.

Levy noted that health officials were concerned about the upcoming Sukkot festival, with its large celebrations usually held in close contact.

“What worries us is Sukkot, which has the potential for events that have an impact on infection: Simhat Torah, hakafot, sales of the four species, Ushpizin, yeshiva students returning home,” Levy said.

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