PM talks with Hasidic leaders amid fear of virus spread at big Sukkot gatherings

TV report says some ultra-Orthodox communities planning holiday events; health officials say virus carriers were on 17 flights from Ukraine, Belarus

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and boys, a few mask-clad due to the coronavirus pandemic, stand along a street corner in the neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem a few hours before the start of Yom Kippur, on September 27, 2020 (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and boys, a few mask-clad due to the coronavirus pandemic, stand along a street corner in the neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem a few hours before the start of Yom Kippur, on September 27, 2020 (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Israeli health authorities are increasingly concerned about the serious coronavirus outbreak among Hasidic groups, amid reports of widespread flouting of health regulations and plans for mass gatherings over the upcoming Sukkot holiday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday spoke to the leader of the Vizhnitz Hasidic dynasty, according to Channel 12, a day after police dispersed an illegal indoor gathering of hundreds of members of the sect. Netanyahu also held a phone call with the leader of the Belz Hasidic sect on Friday, in an effort to persuade the religious leaders to encourage their followers to heed health rules.

Channel 12 on Tuesday night said police fear mass gatherings will be held throughout the week-long Sukkot holiday, in direct violation of lockdown rules. Various Hasidic sects are constructing large sukkahs in their communities, including in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, according to the network.

Police are concerned the events will include hours of singing and dancing every night, raising the risk of mass coronavirus infection among participants, the report said.

The holiday begins on Friday night.

Members of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family walk with child strollers along a street in Mea Shearim in Jerusalem a few hours before the start of Yom Kippur, September 27, 2020. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Separately, health officials told the network that Bratslav Hasidic pilgrims returning from Ukraine and Belarus, who traveled there over the Rosh Hashanah holiday, were found to be infected with coronavirus on at least 17 returning flights to Tel Aviv.

Thousands of Israelis traveled to Ukraine for the pilgrimage site of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, before Kyiv closed its borders to avoid an outbreak. Thousands of others then traveled to neighboring Belarus in an attempt to cross the border to Ukraine, but were blocked by local authorities.

Some returning pilgrims boarded planes to Tel Aviv while displaying symptoms of COVID-19, the officials were quoted saying. Others refused to cooperate with contact tracing or get tested.

Ukrainian border guards block the road on the Belarus-Ukraine border, in Belarus, September 15, 2020. ( via AP)

“It’s one failure after the next,” an unnamed official said. “They aren’t willing to get tested, are unwilling to cooperate and aren’t declaring that they’ve entered quarantine. It will simply hurt us all.”

Figures cited by Channel 12 indicated that the vast majority of those infected with the coronavirus in the ultra-Orthodox community are boys and men between the ages of 17 and 24, indicating the virus is primarily spreading in yeshivas.

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.

In one 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 and without 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 the 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 daily figure for share of positive tests stands at some 14%.

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