President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday made an “emergency” visit to a top ultra-Orthodox rabbi, urging him to encourage his followers to obey COVID-19 restrictions as Haredi communities have been among the hardest-hit by the virus in Israel.
Rivlin’s visit to Rabbi Shalom Cohen came as a number of prominent rabbis stepped up calls to obey coronavirus regulations amid a growing crisis among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, who account for a disproportionate portion of Israel’s disastrous infection rate — some 40 percent of new cases, according to figures released Thursday. The ultra-Orthodox make up some 10% of Israel’s population.
Rivlin told Cohen, who heads the Sephardi Shas Council of Torah Sages, that the restrictions were meant to fulfill the biblical commandment of saving lives and were in no way “an attempt to force anyone to act against their beliefs.”
According to a statement from Rivlin’s office, after the “emergency visit,” the president and Cohen “issued a joint public call to fight the coronavirus on the basis of mutual responsibility and total abjuration of incitement.”
Criticism of the ultra-Orthodox has been growing, with widespread reports saying some are disregarding lockdown restrictions during the High Holiday season, including by continuing to host mass gatherings. TV reports have shown numerous large sukkahs, capable of holding hundreds of people, being constructed in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood; Sukkot starts on Friday evening.
“God forbid that because of this terrible disease there will be baseless hatred,” Rivlin told Cohen.
The president also asked Cohen to “pray for Israelis at this difficult time and continue to encourage his students and all those who come to him to follow the directions in the spirit of responsibility and mutual obligation,” the statement said.
Cohen told Rivlin he feels responsibility and love for all Israelis, of all ethnicities, the statement said.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who heads the Shas political party, denied that the high rates of infection among the ultra-Orthodox were because they were not following the virus rules.
Deri told Channel 12 news that most of the Haredi infections were among young people because they were going to be tested, while claiming secular youth were not.
“More than 85% of those testing positive in the ultra-Orthodox communities in recent weeks were under 25. And why were they discovered? Because they are getting tested,” Deri said. “That’s compared to the general population where the youth are not getting tested and I know that they have high infection rates.”
“I tell myself that I am to blame for one thing, that I did not succeed, or make enough effort, to convince you that the vast majority of the Haredi population, almost all of it, is following the rules, more than any other community,” he said.
Also Thursday, Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern issued a ruling calling on the public to listen 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.
“If we act with unity, carrying the yoke for each other, and with solidarity, then I completely believe the Lord will end this plague quickly,” he wrote.
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.
A letter from them, which was publicized by the Health Ministry, called on synagogue officials “to work, as much as possible, to allow prayers outdoors.”
However, the letter did not call to close synagogues.
Kanievsky also told his followers that they should take COVID-19 tests if necessary during the festivals, since this was an imperative for pikuah nefesh (saving lives).
Kanievsky faced criticism at the start of the pandemic 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.”
However, not all rabbis were urging compliance.
Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, the head of the rabbinical courts of the anti-Zionist Edah Haredit community, said on Thursday in a message to followers, “Do not fear the authorities, synagogues must be kept open. Do not fear arrest, on the contrary, I’m ready to be arrested,” according to the Kan public broadcaster.
Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy has warned that some fringe groups among the ultra-Orthodox are seeking to deliberately get infected with the coronavirus in a bid to create “herd immunity” in their communities, according to Channel 12.
“This is not our health doctrine and we aren’t adopting herd immunity, with the infections and deaths that it entails. I am very pained by this behavior, and this is a moment of truth for advocacy and for the leadership of the community,” Levy was quoted as saying.
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.
A growing number of reports also said many ultra-Orthodox people were disregarding lockdown regulations.
During the week-long Sukkot holiday, many religious Jews eat meals and sleep in sukkahs that are purpose-built for the holiday. They are usually primitive booths that are at least partially open to the outdoors, with porous roofs made from plant materials and openings for doors and windows.
Many ultra-Orthodox sects build large sukkahs to host communal meals and other celebrations, some of which can hold thousands of people.
Channel 13 reported Thursday night that the lockdown has sparked a rebellion in parts of the community, with some planning to continue holiday celebrations as normal and that the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim features dozens of large sukkahs built for hundreds of people.
One Mea Shearim resident told Channel 12, “Whoever lives here will pray in synagogues as usual, but only people from the area, not those from outside. However, most people here already got sick and recovered, so it’s not clear why we’re not allowed to congregate. Law enforcement isn’t scary. We’ll pay the NIS 50,000 fine and that’s it.”
In addition, a large market for the sale of the four species used during the holiday was set up in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood Wednesday, according to the Yedioth Ahronoth daily. Such markets, usually a normal sight ahead of the holiday, have been banned this year by the government.
The Health Ministry on Thursday issued a complex set of regulations relating to the spread of the coronavirus during the Sukkot holiday, which begins on Friday evening, including allowing some crowding in the huts traditionally erected during the festival.
Israel is under a nationwide lockdown as its second wave outbreak spirals out of control. Health authorities fear holiday gatherings will further spread the virus. Current regulations limit indoor gatherings to 10 people, and outdoor gatherings to 20, including for prayers and protests.
Israelis are also forbidden from hosting non-nuclear family members in their homes during the holiday.
The government has repeatedly come under fire for issuing confusing, contradictory, and shifting guidelines to the public in its efforts to turn the tide against the pandemic.
A police official told Channel 12 on Thursday that law enforcement will not be able to dismantle all sukkahs that violate guidelines, and that responsibility to comply with the regulations rests with the public.
Police have said that while they do not intend to go into private sukkahs and check for violators, they will have zero tolerance for massive sukkahs meant to contain large groups of people.
Ministers have approved fines of NIS 500 ($145) for anyone caught in a sukkah that is not their own. It was not immediately clear if the owner of the sukkah would also be fined, or how the rule will affect communal sukkahs.
Earlier Thursday, a campaign poster shared on social media by the left-wing Meretz party accused ultra-Orthodox politicians of having “blood on their hands.” It was deleted a short while later.
The poster, which featured images of Deri and United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman, was meant to be a criticism of their coronavirus policies.
The poster was condemned by opposition leader Yair Lapid, who called it “unbearable and illegitimate.”
After a massive spike in coronavirus cases, Israel on September 18 entered its second national lockdown, which has seen most shops and businesses shuttered and most Israelis confined within a one-kilometer (0.6-mile) radius of their homes except for essentials like food and medicines.
The lockdown will remain in force until October 14.
The Health Ministry said Thursday night that 9,015 new coronavirus cases had been confirmed the previous day, with almost 70,000 tests conducted. It was the first time the number of daily cases surpassed 9,000, though some of the cases are said to be part of a backlog from Yom Kippur when most testing was halted and labs were closed.
The death toll climbed to 1,622, with 70 deaths since the previous evening.