The number of worshipers allowed in synagogues will be increased ahead of the upcoming Tisha B’Av fast, which begins on Wednesday evening, the heads of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties announced on Monday.
In a joint statement, United Torah Judaism and Shas said that the decision was taken after party leaders met with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Health Ministry deputy director Itamar Grotto to discuss a number of issues of concern to the ultra-Orthodox community, including limits on synagogue services and the status of yeshivas during the upcoming school year.
The ultra-Orthodox community “is currently going through a major crisis” and “we must all work together to come to an arrangement, especially regarding the month of Elul, the days of mercy and forgiveness — the most important days for the world of Torah,” Shas chairman and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said in the statement.
Elul is the final month of the Hebrew calendar and marks both the start of the yeshiva year and the run-up to the high holy days. Tisha B’Av, which falls this year on Wednesday evening and Thursday, mourns the destruction of the two Jewish Temples in Jerusalem.
The Health Ministry has yet to officially announce a change in policy and the statement did not specify how large an increase in attendance will be permitted. Currently up to 10 people are allowed to gather at synagogues, in line with general restrictions on indoor gatherings.
Synagogues and yeshivas, which were shuttered in late March, served as major vectors for the transmission of the coronavirus during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and when the government finally decided to let them resume operations in May, it was with numerous caveats.
After the reopening, synagogues were limited to a maximum of 50 attendees, a number which was reduced to 19 in early July, amid the pandemic’s second wave, before being whittled down to 10.
The ultra-Orthodox community suffered disproportionate rates of infection during the first wave of the pandemic and, at one point in April, around three-quarters of cases in Jerusalem were in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
The spread of the virus prompted the government to institute a number of lockdowns in ultra-Orthodox areas, leading to street protests and causing ultra-Orthodox lawmakers to complain that their communities were being unfairly singled out by authorities.
“Along with the need for extreme caution to prevent coronavirus infection, everything must be done for the continued existence of the world of Torah, yeshivas and kollels,” Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman, of UTJ, said in Monday’s statement.
On July 6, UTJ MK Moshe Gafni threatened to withdraw the party from the coalition if the government decided to close down yeshivas in response to surging coronavirus cases.
That came after more than 200 students at the Beit Matityahu Yeshiva in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak were diagnosed with COVID-19.
On Monday, Gafni called for increasing the number of students allowed to learn together in yeshivas, which are currently divided into multiple “capsules,” saying that while “we must continue to observe the directives of the Health Ministry, at the same time, things that are possible to do within the framework of caution should be done.”
Yeshivas, he said, are “our heart and soul.”
According to the Health Ministry, Israel’s virus death toll rose to 474 on Monday. Since the start of the outbreak, there have been 63,581 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, diagnosed in the country, and 27,125 people have recovered.
Of the 35,982 active cases remaining, 310 have serious symptoms, and there were 96 people on ventilators, the ministry figures showed.