'Enormous' infection rates at some ultra-Orthodox yeshivas

Top health official: 1/3 of Israel’s virus infections are among ultra-Orthodox

Chezy Levy says community seeing ‘steep increase’ in deaths; says schools won’t reopen ‘as normal’ after holidays

Rabbi Elimelech Biderman and ultra-Orthodox Jews pray for forgiveness (Selihot) at the burial site of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai in Meron, northern Israel, September 12, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)
Rabbi Elimelech Biderman and ultra-Orthodox Jews pray for forgiveness (Selihot) at the burial site of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai in Meron, northern Israel, September 12, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy told reporters on Wednesday that 34 percent of those diagnosed with the virus in Israel were ultra-Orthodox, though the community constitutes only approximately 12% of the population.

“The ultra-Orthodox sector, due to overcrowding and prayers which sometimes violate the rules of conduct, has reached a high level of morbidity. It must be treated and a solution must be found, because it affects ultra-Orthodox society, the infection rate in general and hospitals,” Levy said, without giving specifics on the timeframe for the infection statistics.

It was also not clarified how patients were categorized as ultra-Orthodox. According to a 2019 report by the Israel Democracy Institute, around 12% of the general population is categorized as belonging to that community.

Levy said that although the death rate in the ultra-Orthodox community remained relatively low in comparison with the general population and Arab community — presumably due to the relatively young age of those infected — it was undergoing a “steep increase.”

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy during a press conference in Jerusalem about the coronavirus on July 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Levy also said that some ultra-Orthodox yeshivas had “enormous” rates of infection. Over a dozen ultra-Orthodox education centers have been transformed into housing facilities for COVID-19 patients in recent days after seeing serious outbreaks.

The ultra-Orthodox yeshivas were reopened in mid-August, two weeks ahead of the general school system.

Levy noted that health officials were concerned about the upcoming Sukkot festival, with its large celebrations usually held in close contact, as well as the return home of seminary students.

“What worries us is Sukkot, which has the potential for events that have an impact on infection: Simhat Torah, hakafot, sales of the four species, Ushpizin, yeshiva students returning home,” Levy said.

The ministry chief also responded to a question from a reporter about recent reports suggesting that some parts of the ultra-Orthodox community have decided they will aim to reach a point of herd immunity.

“Herd immunity is not something we want — not in the ultra-Orthodox sector and not at all,” Levy said. “We did not see it do much in the country that took it [as a policy] — it did not reduce mortality,” he said, presumably referring to Sweden.

The health official also said that in his opinion, the school system would not reopen on October 11. While the government had initially indicated the lockdown would last two to three weeks, officials and the prime minister have indicated in recent days it could last far longer.

“It is clear that the education system will not be able to open as normal, and it is not certain that we will open it at all,” Levy said. “We are at 15% positive test results — it’s crazy.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather for the funeral of their Rabbi Refael Aharon Roth, 72, who died from the virus, in Bnei Brak, Israel, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)

The Health Ministry announced on Wednesday that the positive rate of coronavirus tests reached a record high of 15%, hours before the so-called coronavirus cabinet was expected to discuss setting goals and indicators for a gradual emergence from lockdown, Israel’s second this year.

In an effort to drive down the soaring daily new infection rates — which surpassed 8,000 on several days last week — sweeping new measures took force on Friday.

However reports surfaced Tuesday of a number of incidents in which coronavirus restrictions were flouted in various ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods.

In this September 21, 2020, photo, ultra-Orthodox Jews wear face masks during a morning prayer in a synagogue separated by plastic partitions, in Bnei Brak, Israel. (AP/Oded Balilty)

In once case, police arrived at a synagogue in the central city of Modiin Illit on Tuesday where they found dozens of worshipers praying together without masks or observing social distancing regulations. Officers broke up the gathering and took five worshipers in for questioning.

Another ultra-Orthodox event broken up by police was held Monday evening in the primarily ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, with a large gathering of the Vizhnitz Hasidic sect. Videos of the event showed many people close together without masks.

National religious news site Srugim reported that thousands of Haredim returned home Monday night after spending Yom Kippur in group prayers in contravention of guidelines. Dozens of buses took worshipers back to ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods at the end of the holiday under the guise of heading for demonstrations, which are currently permitted under the law, the site reported.

Members of the Vizhnitz Hasidic sect gather in the primarily ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak late on September 28, 2020 (Screen capture; Kan)

The Haaretz daily reported that tens of thousands of yeshiva students were sent home for vacation Tuesday after weeks of study together, without receiving test results showing them to be negative for coronavirus — as had been required by the government as part of the so-called “capsule program” for yeshivas.

Students at a yeshiva in Rishon Lezion dance after the end of Yom Kippur, September 28, 2020 (Twitter screenshot)

The report also said many rules of the program, meant to allow yeshivas to operate while protecting the students, had been neglected or ignored by schools and students.

Citing Health Ministry data, the Ynet news site reported Monday that positive test rates were sky-high in five largely ultra-Orthodox towns, standing at 32.53 percent over the past week in Beitar Illit, 31.27% in Elad, 27.91% in Bnei Brak, 26.42% in Modiin Illit and 23.04% in Beit Shemesh.

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