Reporter's notebook

The shuttered neighborhood next door: Touring one of Israel’s virus hotspots

As life returns to something like normal for many Beit Shemesh residents like me, some of the town’s Hasidic residents find themselves under a government lockdown

Residents walk in the Hasidic enclave of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet under lockdown, April 27, 2020. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)
Residents walk in the Hasidic enclave of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet under lockdown, April 27, 2020. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)

As the government slowly lifts restrictions on public life, more and more people in my Beit Shemesh neighborhood have started emerging from their homes and returning to something beginning to resemble normal life.

In Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, shops are reopening, children (wearing masks) are playing in the parking lots of their buildings, and public prayer has resumed (albeit with social distancing measures in place and only outdoors).

However, even as most residents of this city breathe a sigh of relief that the long nightmare of extreme home isolation may be nearing its end, in certain parts of town, things are moving in the opposite direction.

Last week, new data released by the Health Ministry showed that Beit Shemesh, with its population of just over 120,000, was one of three cities with significant ultra-Orthodox populations that had surpassed Tel Aviv, the country’s second-largest population center, in the number of its active coronavirus cases.

Residents of the mixed Modern Orthodox-Haredi neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, on April 27, 2020. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)

In fact, according to the ministry, cases had spiked by around 50 percent in a week, rising to more than 320. Media reports linked this increase to the hard core of ultra-Orthodox extremists in the city, many of whom reject the government’s authority and refuse to practice social distancing.

In response, the government approved closures of the Kirya Haredit and Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet neighborhoods. The lockdowns, which went into effect at 6 a.m. Sunday and are set to last until Friday, effectively sealed off the neighborhoods in a manner similar to restrictions previously placed on the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, where a ban on movement were imposed to prevent the spread of the pandemic.

Many members of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community were slow to start heeding social distancing regulations and initially resisted the shutdown of schools and synagogues, leading to disproportionately high infection rates.

Some members of extremist sects have continued to ignore health regulations, and have clashed with security forces attempting to enforce rules. On April 14, in the Kirya Haredit, for instance, police had to rescue a man from a mob angry that he informed authorities about a ritual bath that had remained open in violation of government regulations (Hebrew).

A tale of two neighborhoods

This was not the case in my own neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, a mixed neighborhood of modern Orthodox and Haredi Jews, many of them English-speaking immigrants.

Many in my neighborhood were indeed slow to fully grasp the need for social distancing, but it had less to do with a resistance to authority than a lack of basic information. As the head of one local kollel (full-time yeshiva for married men) told me last month, aside from a few Health Ministry posters, he did not feel that there had been much of an outreach effort to his community.

That eventually started to change, however, and as the government improved its communications efforts, people became increasingly stringent in following social distancing rules, which were endorsed by many local rabbis.

Health Ministry posters calling on Haredim to stay home over Passover, March 31, 2020. (Sam Sokol)

After synagogues were closed in late March, my neighbors began holding prayers outside in the parking lot, wearing masks and maintaining two meters between congregants. When public prayer was then fully banned, one of my neighbors found a novel solution, organizing a porch minyan (prayer quorum) in which he led services from his balcony and we all joined in from our own apartments.

Nobody had to leave the safety of their own home and we were able to obey all relevant governmental and rabbinical limitations on public prayer while still maintaining a sense of community. My neighbor, an Israel-born Hasid whose mother grew up in New York’s Williamsburg neighborhood, had a Torah scroll and would read the weekly portion in a voice loud enough that even people across the street were able to hear him.

After Passover, when public prayer outside of synagogues again became permitted, that neighbor began holding services in the parking lot, strictly in accordance with Health Ministry regulations.

Past the checkpoint

On Monday morning, I walked to Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet to see how the neighborhood was faring under the new closure. Despite its locations only several hundred meters from my own neighborhood of Aleph, walking into Bet is entering a different world.

A policeman speaking with an ultra-Orthodox man at a checkpoint at the entrance to Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet on April 27, 2020. (Sam Sokol)

As I walked down the road between the two neighborhoods, I realized that the closure was much looser than I had expected. The backs of many apartment buildings face the bottom of a valley separating the neighborhoods, and I noticed people walking the dirt paths between them.

But at the entrance to Bet stood a checkpoint manned by two IDF servicemen and two police officers checking cars and making sure that nobody entered or exited without permission. After several minutes standing in the hot sun as they checked my journalist credentials with their superiors, I was allowed to pass and started down Nahar Hayarden Street, the neighborhood’s main drag.

Most of the residents I passed, though far from all, were wearing masks. Many appeared to be practicing social distancing, although one couple I passed only pulled their masks over their faces after I started taking their picture.

One Hasid, walking with his wife and children, told me he was frustrated that he was unable to work because of the restrictions, but that he was doing his best to get by.

Rivka Mor Yosef, a resident of Bet originally from the United States, told me later during a telephone interview: “I went for a walk last night and would say that 80 percent of people had masks on and kept their distance.

“I’m on my porch now and everyone has masks on.”

An ultra-Orthodox couple taking a walk in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet on April 27, 2020. (Sam Sokol)

While the government has said that it would send in the military to distribute food to at-risk populations in closed-off areas, Mor Yosef, who has a special needs daughter, said that she had not seen the police or army on her street.

Aside from the extremists, she said she does not blame many of her neighbors for their tardiness in adopting social distancing rules: while she has internet, many of them do not, and information travels slowly among members of some of the more isolated sects.

“They’re very ill informed here,” she said. “You can’t blame the people in this neighborhood. They really don’t have enough information to deal with the situation.”

Given the frequency with which the neighborhood’s extremists have clashed with police, I was surprised during my visit at just how calm the streets appeared. Aside from posters on a few bus stops complaining about how the establishment of a “ghetto” by Israel’s “military government” had created a “spiritual plague,” there was no visible unrest.

My impression was somewhat inaccurate.

Speaking with Deputy Mayor Rena Hollander, who is helping lead the city’s efforts to provide residents of closed off neighborhoods with food and supplies, I commented on how quiet Bet had been and she immediately sent me a video of a clash between residents and policemen which she said occurred shortly after I had left the area.

In the video, a crowd of Hasidim can be seen confronting police officers, at whom they repeatedly scream “Nazi, Nazi.”

However, the extremists are only part of the story, with Hollander describing how residents of the closed neighborhoods were working with the local authorities at “mapping out” people’s needs.

“The purpose of the closure is to try and concentrate on those neighborhoods and try and convince people to be more obedient to the rules and to get families who are sick to go to the coronavirus hotel,” she said.

So far, she said, 128 residents from across the city have been sent to the government run convalescent facilities.

And despite the presence of extremists in Bet, their approach is far from the only one apparent there.

Stuart Schnee, an American resident of Aleph, described how he had to go to Bet on an errand on Sunday and ran across a touching scene between a Hasidic man and an IDF soldier.

“I wouldn’t believe if I hadn’t seen it,” he said. “A Hasidic father walked up to a soldier with his little boys and pointed to the soldier and said ‘See, this gun won’t hurt anybody,’ and then said in Yiddish ‘Say thanks.’ And all three little boys looked at the soldier and said thanks. The soldier smiled behind his mask.”

Meanwhile, in a video shared on local WhatsApp groups, a Hasidic family can be seen apparently setting up a barbecue at one of the entrances to Bet in order to feed soldiers manning a nearby checkpoint.

As far as I could tell, the majority of residents do not see the imposition of the closure as a call to arms. Most are probably just anxious to get through the pandemic as best they can.

“I don’t feel the closure,” one young Hasid, sitting on his balcony in Bet, told me, explaining that because his sister had been diagnosed with COVID-19, he had been placed under home quarantine even before the borders of his neighborhood were sealed.

“I’m already in isolation,” he lamented.

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