In violation of the national lockdown regulations aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus, thousands of people attended a funeral procession Sunday for a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi who died overnight after battling COVID-19 for several months.
The turnout was estimated at some 10,000. Police officers later said that if they had tried to prevent the mass event, there would have been bloodshed.
Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, the head of the Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem and scion of the Soloveitchik rabbinical dynasty, died early Sunday morning at the age of 99.
He had contracted the virus last year, and his condition reportedly deteriorated dramatically over the weekend.
Known as the “elder of the heads of the yeshivas,” Soloveitchik was recognized as a powerful voice across Israeli ultra-Orthodox society.
The funeral procession departed from his home, opposite his yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Sanhedria neighborhood, at 11 a.m. His body was to be taken to the Har Hamenuhot cemetery in the Givat Shaul neighborhood, where the burial is scheduled for early afternoon, with thousands more expected to attend.
Police called on the public not to join in the procession or the burial and said they were in “negotiations” with community leaders to prevent mass gatherings linked to the funeral.
During the funeral, it was announced that Rabbi Yitzhok Scheiner, 98, head of the Kamenitz yeshiva in Jerusalem and after Soloveitchik, Israel’s oldest ultra-Orthodox yeshiva head, had also died of COVID-19 at Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital.
The US-born Scheiner was a member of the rabbinical panel leading the Degel HaTorah non-Hasidic Lithuanian faction of the United Torah Judaism party.
Israel is several weeks into its third nationwide lockdown to combat the virus, but infection rates remain high, with thousands of new cases diagnosed each day.
There are violations of the rules in all areas of the country, but there have been repeated reports of flagrant rule-breaking in some ultra-Orthodox communities, including by opening schools, holding holiday events and celebrating weddings.
Infection rates in the ultra-Orthodox community are disproportionately high, likely due to lockdown infractions as well as crowded living conditions and other factors.
Police attempting to enforce regulations in some ultra-Orthodox areas have met with violent resistance including outright rioting and attacks on officers, especially in Bnei Brak, next to Tel Aviv. Ultra-Orthodox community leaders have accused the police of using excessive force.
The issue of ultra-Orthodox noncompliance has sparked public backlash and political infighting in the governing coalition. Ultra-Orthodox parties allied with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party oppose the increase of fines for violating lockdown rules, while the Blue and White party says the hikes and other more stringent enforcement measures are necessary.
The political gridlock has stalled government votes on lengthening the lockdown, which is set to expire overnight Sunday-Monday but is expected to be extended.