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All Israel's schools are supposed to be shut during lockdown

Rabbi Kanievsky orders Haredi boys schools to reopen, then rescinds his decision

Top ultra-Orthodox leader, himself sick with COVID, backtracks on ruling that defied national virus rules; reportedly came under pressure to rethink from Ponevezh Yeshiva head

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in the northern Israeli city of Safed, February 26, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in the northern Israeli city of Safed, February 26, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi Chaim Kanievsky late on Sunday revoked an order he had issued earlier in the day calling for Haredi boys schools to open on Monday. All of Israel’s schools have been closed during the ongoing lockdown, as part of the effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

According to ultra-Orthodox media, the 92-year-old rabbi, who is currently ill with COVID-19, initially told principals in schools associated with his non-Hasidic Lithuanian branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism that they should open as usual following the Sukkot holiday.

But in the latest example of disagreements within the community over the coronavirus restrictions, Kanievksy then watered down and finally reversed his order — first saying that while schools could reopen, it was preferable that they do so in coordination with local authorities, and then altogether revoking the order to open schools Monday.

“The rabbi has agreed to postpone the studies for a few days in order to exhaust the negotiations with the authorities,” his associates were quoted as saying.

According to Channel 13 news, perhaps due to the confusion, schools in several ultra-Orthodox communities were still planning on opening Monday. In the settlement of Beitar Illit, for example, parents were told to ignore the rulings of the “secular authorities” — an apparent reference to the Education Ministry specifically issuing warnings against opening schools in the city.

Ynet reported that Kanievsky’s change of heart over disregarding the restrictions came following pressure from Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, head of the prestigious Ponevezh Yeshiva and also a prominent community leader, who had himself ruled that the schools should stay shuttered.

Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva, seen at his home after lightning the candles on the fourth night of Hanukkah, in Bnei Brak, December 5, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

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 to try to curb surging COVID-19 infection rates, which have been disproportionately high in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Earlier Sunday, a top Health Ministry official presenting details on the government plan to gradually lift the lockdown for the education system said that schools would likely not even be reopened next week, as had been initially expected.

Criticism of the ultra-Orthodox community has been growing in recent weeks. Though many in the community are keeping to guidelines, a significant number disregarded lockdown restrictions during the Sukkot holiday, including by holding mass gatherings.

The ultra-Orthodox have seen sky-high coronavirus infection rates, with an assessment last week finding that the rate of infection in the community is some three times that of the national average. Spiraling infections across the country prompted the current lockdown, the second this year. Although initially scheduled to be lifted at the end of Sukkot, officials have said it will continue for at least a week longer before any easing of restrictions takes place.

Split within the community?

The disagreement between Kanievsky and Edelstein comes a week after an unprecedented split was reported between the two over reopening places of religious learning, which have been a major vector of COVID-19 infections.

Channel 12 reported on Tuesday that Kanievsky had signed off on a letter that was sent to the United Torah Judaism party-affiliated Yated Ne’eman newspaper, calling for yeshiva study halls to be reopened. However, under the direction of Edelstein, the paper chose not to publish the letter, the report said, calling the move an “unprecedented step” in the ultra-Orthodox world.

Several hours after that report came out, the two rabbis issued a joint statement calling it “baseless lies,” and said that Edelstein had only held up the publication because he wanted to “clear up some marginal issues” before it went to press.

Kanievsky was diagnosed with the virus earlier this month, two days after the Haaretz daily reported that he had 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.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky is greeted by followers at his home in the central city of Bnei Brak on September 22, 2020, as he is shielded by a screen to protect him from the coronavirus. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

With his condition said to be worsening, footage was published Sunday of Kanievsky attending a Sukkot celebration last week where he appeared to faint while sitting in his seat.

At the start of the pandemic, Kanievsky faced intense criticism for his handling of the crisis.

He made headlines on March 12 when, despite appeals from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Israel Police, he insisted that yeshivas and schools remain open in defiance of government calls to close them, handing down a ruling stating that “canceling Torah study is more dangerous than the coronavirus.” At the time, there were 200 active coronavirus cases in the country and no deaths.

He changed course two weeks later, when there were already hundreds of cases a day and as his hometown of Bnei Brak saw widespread infection. On March 29, he ordered his followers to pray individually rather than in group services and wrote that those who violated social-distancing and health rules, endangering others, were akin to murderers in the eyes of Jewish law and may be reported to the Israeli authorities.

Kanievsky was quoted by an online news report in early September as seemingly encouraging yeshiva students not to get tested for the virus, earning sharp criticism from Israel’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu. Gamzu later apologized, saying the quotes attributed to the top ultra-Orthodox rabbi were misleading, apparently confirming a report in the ultra-Orthodox Mishpacha magazine that said the rabbi had not been referring to a blanket policy, but rather was ruling on specific circumstances regarding students who had been tested two weeks prior and who had since been isolated in study “capsules.”

The week before, Kanievsky and Edelstein issued a call to follow the health regulations. A letter from them, which was publicized by the Health Ministry, called on the ultra-Orthodox to only hold prayer services outdoors, while observing social distancing and while wearing masks throughout. The letter said the health rules should be kept without exception and said the Sukkot holiday must be observed with one’s nuclear family only. Kanievsky also told his followers that they should take coronavirus tests if necessary during the festivals since this was an imperative for pikuah nefesh (saving lives).

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