Many ultra-Orthodox flouting virus rules entirely, reports indicate

Dense crowds seen at Yom Kippur prayers in several cases; ‘capsule program’ for yeshiva students said neglected as thousands return home for vacation without testing

Members of the Vizhnitz Hasidic sect gather in the primarily ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak late on September 28, 2020 (Screen capture; Kan)
Members of the Vizhnitz Hasidic sect gather in the primarily ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak late on September 28, 2020 (Screen capture; Kan)

Reports surfaced Tuesday of wholesale flouting of coronavirus restrictions in various ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods, as Israel saw its daily coronavirus deaths per capita surpass those of the United States, and as the number of serious cases passed the 800-mark once cited by health officials as a red line for hospitals.

Israel’s second lockdown, which started on September 18, has been less stringent than the country’s first earlier this year, despite cases and deaths soaring daily. The public has accordingly been reported to be taking a more lax approach to the limitations. Though Israelis largely adhere to mask-wearing and hygiene practices, many have ventured outside and engaged socially despite the closure of much of the economy. A political battle has also been waged over ongoing large-scale demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with the Knesset on Tuesday set to ban such protests for the duration of the lockdown.

Tuesday, however, saw a confluence of reports on Haredi violations of health rules that appeared to go beyond the lenient attitude exhibited by some parts of the rest of the public.

In once case, police arrived at a synagogue in the central city of Modiin Illit on Tuesday where they found dozens of worshippers praying together without masks or observing social distancing regulations. Officers broke up the gathering and took five worshipers in for questioning.

Another ultra-Orthodox event broken up by police was held Monday evening in the primarily ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, with a large gathering of the Vizhnitz Hasidic sect. Videos of the event showed many people close together without masks.

There were sporadic reports of Yom Kippur prayers Sunday evening and Monday being held in crowded gatherings, sans masks, in other locations.

National religious news site Srugim reported on thousands of Haredim who returned home Monday night after spending Yom Kippur in group prayers in contravention of guidelines. Dozens of buses took worshipers back to ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods at the end of the holiday under the guise of heading for demonstrations, which are currently permitted under the law, the site reported.

The Haaretz daily reported that tens of thousands of yeshiva students were sent home for vacation Tuesday after weeks of study together, without receiving test results showing them to be negative for coronavirus — as had been required by the government as part of the so-called “capsule program” for yeshivas.

The report also said many rules of the program, meant to allow yeshivas to operate while protecting the students, had been neglected or ignored by schools and students.

Citing Health Ministry data, the Ynet news site reported Monday that positive test rates were sky-high in five largely ultra-Orthodox towns, standing at 32.53 percent over the past week in Beitar Illit, 31.27% in Elad, 27.91% in Bnei Brak, 26.42% in Modiin Illit and 23.04% in Beit Shemesh.

The national figure for positive tests stands at some 14%.

The capsule program

MK Yaakov Tessler (United Torah Judaism), a representative of the Vizhnitz Hasidic sect in the Knesset, lambasted the breaking up of the event in Bnei Brak.

Tessler told the Walla news site that the event was designated only for members of a yeshiva who had been “together for about two months in capsules, disconnected from everyone.” He went on to lament what he called the lack of awareness in the general population regarding the capsule program.

The capsule program was designed to allow yeshiva students to begin their studies in August in isolated groups. They were allowed to enter the capsules only after receiving a negative result of a coronavirus test, and only allowed to return home in late September with another confirmed negative test in order to prevent them from spreading the coronavirus into the general population.

However, Haaretz’s report indicated many failed to get that second negative result. It also said there were numerous reports of students breaking their capsules throughout the period, leaving the yeshivas and later returning, while some 30,000 students at yeshivas not authorized under the program took part in studies regardless.

It also said some 5,000 students in the capsule program have been diagnosed as virus carriers over the past month.

After a massive spike in coronavirus cases, Israel entered its second national lockdown on September 18, which has seen most shops and businesses shuttered and most Israelis confined within a one-kilometer (0.6-mile) radius of their homes except for essential services like food and medicines.

Israel had a total of 234,060 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic Tuesday afternoon, with 65,511 active cases, 811 of them serious. The death toll stands at 1,516.

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