Three ultra-Orthodox towns surpass Tel Aviv in active coronavirus cases

Beit Shemesh, Elad and Modiin Illit each have more cases than Israel’s second-largest city despite having an aggregate population just over half its size

Police officers close synagogues and hand out fines to Haredi Jews in Jerusalem's Bukharim neighborhood, following government restrictions imposed as part of the effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, April 6, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police officers close synagogues and hand out fines to Haredi Jews in Jerusalem's Bukharim neighborhood, following government restrictions imposed as part of the effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, April 6, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community continues to be disproportionately affected by the coronavirus epidemic, epidemiological data released by the Health Ministry on Thursday showed.

The cities of Beit Shemesh, Elad and Modiin Illit each have more active cases than Tel Aviv, the country’s second-largest population center, according to the dataset.

Elad and Modiin Illit are both predominantly ultra-Orthodox while Beit Shemesh has a large plurality of ultra-Orthodox residents.

Tel Aviv, with its 2018 population of 450,192, currently has 202 active cases while Beit Shemesh has 320, Elad 243 and Modiin Illit 252. All three cities have a combined population of just 241,380.

Earlier this month, a senior Health Ministry official reportedly called for Elad and Modiin Illit to be declared restricted zones, allowing the government to further curtail movement in these places in a bid to limit the virus’s spread. Eventually such measures were declared for Bnei Brak, Israel’s largest ultra-Orthodox city, and Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

Many members of the ultra-Orthodox community were slow to begin 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.

Ultra-Orthodox men pray outside a synagogue in the jewish settlement of Beitar Illit, in the West Bank on April 20, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Jerusalem still leads the country, with 2,341 active cases, most of them located in Haredi neighborhoods. It is followed by Bnei Brak with 1,753. The majority of the cities in the top 10 list of per capita cases of infection are predominantly ultra-Orthodox.

Since the pandemic began, Israel has experienced 14,592 cumulative coronavirus cases, 5,334 of whom have since recovered and 107 of whom are currently on ventilators. There have been 191 deaths.

The government last week eased the emergency quarantine measures blocking entry to and exit from Bnei Brak and parts of Jerusalem, and rolled back other restrictions nationwide.

Last month, channels 12 and 13 both reported that ultra-Orthodox people make up around half the coronavirus patients being treated in various major hospitals around the country.

The large size of Haredi families and fact that many of their communities are located in some of the densest urban areas in Israel have also made battling the virus extremely difficult.

Israeli police officers take out ultra-Orthodox men from the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, as part of an effort to enforce lockdown in order to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, April 2, 2020. (Flash90)

In mid-March, the government ordered a nationwide closure of schools and universities in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus and prevent the country’s health care system from being overloaded. While secular and national-religious educational institutions immediately shut their doors, some in the Haredi community stayed open.

Many of the schools and yeshivas ignoring the new regulations took their lead from rabbis Chaim Kanievsky and Gershon Edelstein. Kanievsky is considered the most prominent leader of the Lithuanian branch of non-Hasidic Haredi Orthodoxy, which has hundreds of thousands of followers, while Edelstein is the head of the influential Ponevezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak.

Despite appeals from the government and the Israel Police, Kanievsky maintained, in the words of one member of his inner circle, that “canceling Torah study is more dangerous than the coronavirus.” Many in the Lithuanian community believe that Torah study has ontological significance beyond the mere attainment of knowledge and that it serves to protect the larger community from harm.

The ultra-Orthodox community was also initially resistant to the Chief Rabbinate’s March 25 synagogue closure order, followed several days later by a ban on outdoor prayer gatherings. These directives came on the heels of the release of epidemiological data showing that a significant number of Israelis with COVID-19 contracted the coronavirus at synagogues.

Illustrative: Border police officers block a main road following the government’s measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, April 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty,)

As the situation in the ultra-Orthodox community worsened and as the government stepped up its efforts to reach out and provide information about the pandemic, people in the ultra-Orthodox sector began to take the issue more seriously and compliance with Health Ministry social distancing directives began to increase.

By the end of March, Kanievsky had made an about-face, ruling that Orthodox Jews must pray by themselves and that it was permissible to report synagogues or any other establishment violating government directives. Those breaking the rules had the status of rodef, a Talmudic term for someone trying to kill another person.

His ruling followed a similar one by Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, the head of the rabbinical courts of the anti-Zionist Edah Haredit community, who on March 19 had called on his followers to adhere to doctors’ instructions, terming it a life or death situation.

However, it appears that the consensus on social distancing may be falling apart. On Tuesday, rabbis Kanievsky and Edelstein published a joint statement in which they warned that if the government failed to soon find a way to relax coronavirus restrictions and reopen yeshivas, they would consider taking “drastic steps.”

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