Prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi Chaim Kanievsky has ordered Haredi boys’ schools to reopen on Sunday, though doing so continues to be prohibited under lockdown measures meant to curb the spread of COVID-19.
In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the ultra-Orthodox community to “not do this” and to adhere to the measures put in place, even as some restrictions were due to be lifted on Sunday including a return to preschools and daycare for kids aged 0-6.
Speaking during a televised press conference on Saturday, Netanyahu said: “I ask the Haredi community not to do this. [I ask] the leaders not to do this. Not to violate the rules. The Torah sanctifies life, and [doing] this endangers life.”
Netanyahu said the Israeli authorities would enforce the restrictions as much as possible. “We will employ legal means in accordance with our abilities,” said the PM, adding that there was a limited number of officers and inspectors and they “cannot be deployed on every street.”
Rabbi Kanievsky, 92, who is himself infected with the coronavirus, handed down the order Saturday after no agreement was reached over the past week for reopening the schools, reported the ultra-Orthodox news site Behadrei Haredim. He called for students to adhere to social distancing measures and limit the number of pupils per classroom, according to the Ynet news site.
Israel’s restrictions will begin to be partially lifted on Sunday, with preschools and daycares set to fully reopen, including in virus hotspots which are currently mainly in Haredi areas. All other schools must remain closed for now.
Kanievsky, a leader of a non-Hasidic Lithuanian branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, ordered schools associated with his group to reopen earlier this week, but later reversed course.
Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, another prominent community leader, said students should continue to do distance learning, Ynet reported.
Edelstein has in recent days been reported to have taken on the role of “the responsible adult” within the community, and is standing firm in insisting that all institutions comply with the coronavirus regulations.
Israel’s schools have been shuttered for almost a month, since the country entered a second lockdown on September 18 to try to curb surging COVID-19 infection rates, which have been disproportionately high in the ultra-Orthodox community.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz also called on Saturday on the ultra-Orthodox public to follow the virus rules, but didn’t directly mention Rabbi Kanievsky.
“There can’t be two states here. No group or person in Israel is above the law — no one,” he tweeted.
Gantz called on Haredi leaders to instruct their followers to adhere to the guidelines, citing pikuach nefesh, the Jewish religious imperative to save lives.
He stressed that most Israelis — including most ultra-Orthodox — have followed the rules.