Prominent rabbi: Media trying to ‘slur’ Haredim in coronavirus reports

Nachum Eisenstein says reports of violations are exaggerated, but tells followers that ‘if they pray in a synagogue their prayers will not be received’

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein. (courtesy, via JTA)
Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein. (courtesy, via JTA)

The Israeli media is trying to “slur” Haredim by creating the impression that they are responsible for spreading the coronavirus, a prominent Jerusalem rabbi claimed. 

“It’s one big lie from the media,” Nachum Eisenstein said, arguing that the phenomenon of Haredim flouting coronavirus rules is being exaggerated, while violations by others, such as beachgoers, are being downplayed.

He said that, as in other segments in Israeli society, there “may be a few individuals” who flout rules, but insisted that it has been “taken out of proportion by the media, which wants to smear the Haredi community.”

Eisenstein, rabbi of the Ma’alot Dafna neighborhood in Jerusalem and a disciple of the late rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who was one Israel’s most influential Haredi rabbis until his death in 2012, spoke to The Times of Israel on Sunday, as news sites reported on the midnight funeral of Rabbi Tzvi Shenkar in Bnei Brak.

The burial was attended by around 400 people, who gathered at close proximity, despite rules stating that only 20 people can go to a funeral, and only then, provided that they maintain a distance of at least two meters (6.5 feet) from each other. 

Yehuda Meshi Zahav, the head of the ultra-Orthodox ZAKA rescue and recovery group, whose ambulance was used at the funeral, said on Twitter that people attending “put others in actual danger.”

Attendees at a Bnei Brak funeral on March 29, 2020. (screen capture: Twitter)

Media were also drawing attention to Health Ministry data, which showed that the rate of infection in Bnei Brak has been several times higher than the average in the country, with the number of patients increasing eightfold every three days (compared to a twofold national average). In Jerusalem, which also has a large ultra-Orthodox population, the cases have quadrupled in the same period. 

Eisenstein said that if authorities give permission for a gathering — as police did in the case of the funeral — it is unfair to criticize those who attend. He said: “Why did police do nothing? Because everything there was done properly.”

Questioned by The Times of Israel, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld confirmed that the funeral was given permission to proceed, and that officers had not tried to disperse the crowds — but said that organizers had been told to limit attendance to 20 people. 

Police officials later defended the decision by saying a clash with the participants could have brought thousands to the streets and that it was therefore preferable to let the crowd disperse on its own.

Eisenstein also argued that Israelis should not assume that some Haredi areas are contending with high infection rates because they were flouting of rules, saying there are other factors that contribute to transmission levels. He said: “People live in large families and small apartments, and before the guidelines, people participated in weddings and Purim celebrations.”  

He said that despite reports of Haredim violating coronavirus rules, rabbis from his non-Hasidic wing of Orthodoxy, as well as the Hasidic community, are encouraging their communities to carefully follow rules. 

“There is no synagogue I know that’s open,” he stated, adding: “We even changed the locks at my synagogue in case someone had a key.” 

Eisenstein said that his followers are either praying at home or in small outdoor services run in accordance with social distancing rules. “I tell people that if they pray in a synagogue their prayers will not be received,” he said.

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