Police brace for virus rule violations at ultra-Orthodox Simchat Torah events

Some expected to carry on with customary dancing despite high transmission rates; police reportedly not planning to enter synagogues or scuffle with those holding Torah scrolls

Police officers in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim, October 5, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police officers in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim, October 5, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel Police were preparing for violations of virus regulations within the ultra-Orthodox community on Saturday night during celebrations for the festival of Simchat Torah.

It was expected that some sectors of the community would flout restrictions against mass gatherings, despite high coronavirus transmission rates.

The holiday, at the end of Sukkot, marks the completion of the yearly cycle of Torah readings and the beginning of a new one. It is traditionally celebrated with hakafot, when worshipers gather at synagogues and circle the prayer hall en masse while holding Torah scrolls and dancing.

Hebrew-language media reports said police were planning to deploy in force for the holiday throughout the country.

Illustrative — Ultra-Orthodox men carry a Torah scroll and dance during Simchat Torah celebrations in Jerusalem, on October 21, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However citing a senior police official, the Haaretz daily reported that police would not enter synagogues to disperse worshipers or scuffle with those holding Torah scrolls.

The Health Ministry on Thursday issued special guidelines to cover the holiday, reminding the public that they must pray outside in open spaces, and warning that anyone who touches a Torah scroll must immediately disinfect their hands afterward.

There has been growing criticism of Haredi communities for not adhering to government guidelines, including continuing to host mass gatherings over the holiday period, despite high levels of transmission within the community.

Additionally, ultra-Orthodox communities tend to be more susceptible to the virus given the lower average socioeconomic conditions, which lead to large families living in small apartments.

Israel’s chief rabbis on Friday implored Israelis to refrain from praying indoors and kissing Torah scrolls during the holiday.

“With all the pain of not being able to celebrate Simchat Torah as we do every year, Torah scrolls must not be passed between worshipers and must not be kissed… so as not to infect each other,” Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau and Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef wrote in an open letter.

The plea came a day after the Ynet news site reported that top rabbis in Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv that has the second-highest number of infections of any city in Israel, told residents they could pray and dance in synagogues during Simchat Torah, in contravention of coronavirus guidelines.

The rabbis published a letter saying prayers in open spaces are preferable but that gathering inside synagogue yards, as well as in the buildings themselves, is allowed

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis account for a disproportionately high number of the total coronavirus cases across the country, according to Health Ministry figures released Friday evening.

Haredi Jews from the Hasidic sect of Shomrei Emunim attend the funeral of Rabbi Refael Aharon Roth, 72, who died from the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, Israel, August 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Twenty-five percent of tests conducted in Haredi towns came back positive, Channel 12 reported, citing figures from the Health Ministry. The countrywide positive test rate stood at 7.4%

In addition, Haredi locales made up for over 60% of the Health Ministry designated virus hotspots, Channel 12 reported. Overall, the number of hotspots nationwide dropped from 130 last week to 80 as of Friday night.

Channel 12 also cited figures from Weizmann Institute of Science Professor Eran Segal showing that “46% of the contagion at the moment is in the ultra-Orthodox community,” in what appeared to be a reference to the percentage of active cases countrywide. The ultra-Orthodox make up some 12% of the total population in Israel.

While concern regarding morbidity rates in Haredi towns has continued, overall virus numbers continued their downward trend Friday evening, with the percentage of positive tests sliding from 7.9% on Thursday to 7.4%.

However, the number of tests conducted remained lower than earlier this week, when it had reached almost 50,000, and far lower than previous weeks, when numbers were above 60,000.

Medical team members take swabs to test for the coronavirus disease at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on October 8, 2020 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

As of 8 p.m. Friday evening, just 24,727 tests were conducted that day, with 1,749 of them returning positive.

The country’s total case count stood at 287,858, of which 60,722 were active. The number of seriously ill patients stood at 860, of whom 241 were on ventilators. The death toll climbed by 12 Friday, reaching 1,886.

The current lockdown, Israel’s second since the pandemic started, began on September 18 before Rosh Hashanah and was tightened a week later. It is currently set to end on October 14.

It has been marked by clashes between enforcing police and ultra-Orthodox protesters, as well as between police and anti-government protesters who are calling for Netanyahu’s resignation due to his ongoing corruption trial and the government’s handling of the virus outbreak.

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