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.
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.