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COVID-19 in Haredi areas

Police crack down on virus violations in Bnei Brak, face unrest in Jerusalem

Yeshiva being used as synagogue said shut down and worshipers there and elsewhere fined, while ultra-Orthodox protesters pelt police car in Mea Shearim

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim on October 2, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim on October 2, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police handed out fines and shut down a Bnei Brak yeshiva Saturday, after pictures and video circulated online showing dozens of people praying there.

In Jerusalem, police met resistance from ultra-Orthodox locals while trying to enforce lockdown measures, with a video showing residents pelting a cruiser as it drove through the Mea Shearim neighborhood.

Police have come under pressure to step up enforcement against holiday gatherings in the ultra-Orthodox community after reports of widespread noncompliance regarding social distancing and mask-wearing and sky-high coronavirus infection rates.

In Bnei Brak, police on Saturday night raided a synagogue belonging to the Ponevezh Yeshiva where at least two dozen people were praying inside, against special pandemic regulations.

The yeshiva is on a break but the synagogue was being used by a hardline religious group known as the Jerusalem Faction, according to reports.

One person, described as an administrator, was fined NIS 5,000, and an unspecified number of people gathered there were also hit with fines, the Hebrew-language reports said.

Reports also indicated that people at a second yeshiva were fined, without specifying where.

A video published by the Hadrei Haredim ultra-Orthodox news website showed police appearing to give out fines to people inside a large sukkah in Bnei Brak belonging to the Nadvorna Hasidic dynasty. According to the news site, only a few people were in the sukkah, though it is large enough to hold hundreds.

According to the Walla news site, a confirmed coronavirus carrier was fined after being caught inside a sukkah in the city.

Ministers have approved fines of NIS 500 ($145) for anyone caught with other people not from their household in another person’s sukkah, a temporary structure used by many Jews during the holiday of Sukkot, which began on Friday. Israelis are also forbidden from hosting non-nuclear family members in their homes during the holiday, and from traveling more than a kilometer from their homes.

No more than 20 people are allowed in outdoor prayer groups, while indoor services are banned. Worshipers must wear masks and observe social distancing.

Police in Bnei Brak shut down 20 synagogues in Bnei Brak allegedly breaking virus regulations on Friday, according to Channel 12 news.

A synagogue in Bnei Brak, closed down by police on October 1 after a large congregation was found there in violation of coronavirus rules (courtesy of Israel Police)

There was no police confirmation of any of the specific enforcement measures. Statements from police on Saturday night focused on anti-government protests held around the country, including in Tel Aviv, where dozens were arrested and hundreds reported fined for what officers alleged was disturbing order, attacking police and not following virus rules.

Police were criticized over the weekend for what appeared to be lax enforcement of the same rules in ultra-Orthodox areas. However, some in the government, which is backed by the country’s two most powerful ultra-Orthodox political parties, have criticized the police for disproportionate enforcement of ultra-Orthodox while allowing anti-government protests.

In Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, footage shared online showed dozens of people in the streets throwing objects at police vehicles, which appeared to be leaving the scene.

Another video showed masses of people and a dumpster on fire in the middle of the street as community members protested police measures.

The neighborhood is home to several hardline factions which reject the authority of the state and protests against police are not uncommon there.

A reporter for the Ynet news site said on Friday that police entered three celebratory meals held against the rules in the Jerusalem neighborhood, but left without doing anything.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated to ultra-Orthodox leaders ahead of the holiday that their community would not receive special treatment in his government’s crackdown against violators of coronavirus rules.

“There will not be relief [from restrictions],” Netanyahu said in a conference call with Haredi lawmakers along with the mayors of Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Modiin Illit, Rechasim, Beitar Illit and Elad, all communities with majority Haredi populations.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, followers of the Hasidic sect of Shomrei Emunim, wearing protective face masks amid concerns over the country’s coronavirus outbreak, attend the funeral of their Rabbi Refael Aharon Roth, 72, who died from the virus, in Bnei Brak, Israel, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Criticism of the ultra-Orthodox community has been growing in recent days, with widespread reports showing a significant number are disregarding lockdown restrictions during the High Holiday season, including by continuing to host mass gatherings.

The ultra-Orthodox are far from the only ones to break the byzantine rules of Israel’s rather loose second lockdown, but have largely been responsible for the more egregious gatherings in recent weeks, and are currently the single most affected population in the country.

Haredim account for a disproportionate number of Israel’s disastrous infection rate — some 40 percent of new cases, according to figures released Thursday. The ultra-Orthodox make up some 12% of Israel’s population.

Jerusalem and Bnei Brak have been the two most hard-hit cities by the virus. There are currently over 8,300 active cases in Jerusalem, and over 5,700 in Bnei Brak, out of some 71,500 active cases nationwide, according to Health Ministry data released Saturday night.

On Thursday, Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern issued a ruling calling on the public to adhere to Health Ministry instructions and refrain from holding mass gatherings over the Sukkot holiday. Stern called on Jerusalem residents to act with consideration for their neighbors’ safety.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at his home in the central city of Bnei Brak on September 22, 2020. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the leaders of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, with hundreds of thousands of followers, on Wednesday also issued a call to favor outdoor prayer.

Kanievsky himself tested positive for the virus on Friday,

The diagnosis came just two days after the Haaretz daily reported Kanievsky violated quarantine, hosting visitors at his home in Bnei Brak following Yom Kippur, despite being required to self-isolate due to his exposure to a confirmed coronavirus carrier — his driver.

The crisis in the ultra-Orthodox communities is a major concern for health officials, who ascribe the high over-representation of ultra-Orthodox Jews among new infections in Israel to holiday gatherings, crowding in yeshiva educational institutions, and dense living conditions.

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