Interview'When ambulance sirens stopped ringing we became complacent'

Top NY Haredi rabbi: Virus compliance waned because people thought crisis passed

Agudath Israel spokesman says Brooklyn protests sparked by anger at New York authorities, who he says bullied Orthodox Jewish community instead of engaging with it

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Members of the ultra-Orthodox community speak with NYPD officers on a street corner on October 7, 2020, in the Borough Park neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP/John Minchillo)
Members of the ultra-Orthodox community speak with NYPD officers on a street corner on October 7, 2020, in the Borough Park neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP/John Minchillo)

NEW YORK — A prominent Orthodox rabbi in New York acknowledged Thursday that the city’s Haredim had become complacent following the first wave of the coronavirus outbreak.

However, he said that New York authorities’ failure to engage with the community’s leaders caused the angry protests that made national headlines this week.

Agudath Israel of America’s public affairs director Avi Shafran told The Times of Israel that adherence to health guidelines “fell somewhat to the wayside” over the summer because “people felt, wrongly, that the crisis had passed.”

During the first wave of the pandemic earlier this year, New York was the country’s deadliest hotspot, with Haredi communities in Brooklyn and elsewhere hit particularly hard.

The city wrestled its outbreak down to a steady and relatively low level of infections over the summer, but cases have been rising in recent weeks, with hospitalizations starting to follow.

Agudah Israel of America spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran (courtesy)

Shafran, whose Agudath Israel organization serves as an umbrella body for Orthodox groups in the US, suggested that it took New York Haredim longer to internalize that the virus was once again on the rise.

“When, back in the spring, ambulance sirens were the background sound of everyday life, and everyone knew someone who had succumbed to the deadly virus, people were compelled to pay attention. When things are quiet, as they generally have been more recently… it is easy to become complacent. That is human nature,” he said.

“Once the uptick was determined and confirmed, though, things began to change,” Shafran said, pointing to improved compliance in the community with mask-wearing guidelines in recent days.

“Had the governor and the mayor truly engaged the Orthodox leadership in a good faith effort to build on that recognition, things would have been very different from the anger and frustration we are seeing now,” Shafran said, referring to the Tuesday and Wednesday night protests against new coronavirus restrictions.

The measures imposed by New York state restrict access to businesses, houses of worship and schools in and near areas where infections are climbing. The affected areas in New York City are largely Orthodox strongholds, and some community members have accused authorities of singling the community out for enforcement.

Hundreds of Haredim protested at the Borough Park demonstrations, which included mask-burning and descended into violence on both nights. Demonstrators assaulted two members of the community, who they accused of reporting lockdown violations to the press or the authorities.

Cuomo announced the fresh restrictions on Tuesday. He said the new rules are based solely on science and coronavirus case clusters in areas that, in his view, have flouted the state’s existing virus safety rules.

Members of Jewish Orthodox community gather around a journalist as he conducts an interview on a street corner on October 7, 2020, in the Borough Park neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP/John Minchillo)

There has been an average of 659 COVID-19 patients in hospitals statewide over the past week, up from 426 for the week ending September 6, Cuomo said. During an early April peak, nearly 19,000 coronavirus patients were hospitalized statewide.

He said a few areas were disproportionately driving the uptick in cases, with over five percent of coronavirus tests coming back positive in 20 hot spot ZIP codes, compared with about 1.3% statewide.

Set to take effect Friday — the day before the Simchat Torah holiday — the new rules apply to parts of Brooklyn and Queens in New York City, sections of Orange and Rockland counties in the Hudson Valley, and an area within Binghamton, near the Pennsylvania border. Some of the areas outside the city are also home to large enclaves of Haredi Jews.

The restrictions will apply to targeted areas, with harsher rules imposed on locations with more severe outbreaks, and less stringent restrictions on surrounding areas.

In so-called “red zones,” with the worst outbreaks, schools will be closed for in-person teaching and nonessential businesses will be shuttered. Houses of worship will be limited to 25% capacity, with services of no more than 10 people.

Agudath Israel of America filed a federal lawsuit on Thursday against the restrictions on houses of worship, calling the policy unconstitutionally discriminatory against religious practice.

Shafran called the latest measures “utterly unreasonable,” arguing that differentiating the severity of measures based on ZIP codes punishes some institutions that have been complying with virus guidelines, while giving others a pass because they happen to be outside of a red zone.

He also took issue with Cuomo singling out “Orthodox Jews” in recent press conferences, saying both the briefings and “the media’s choice of headlines and photos all are irresponsible acts when deadly violence against Jews is still vivid in recent memory.”

Shafran highlighted the front page of Thursday’s New York Daily News, which featured a headline reading, “Oy, Revolt,” plastered over a picture from the previous night’s protest, along with a quote from a community member who said, “Here in Borough Park, we don’t go by the laws of America. We have our own laws.”

He compared the tabloid to an “unruly child” and called the front page layout “typically irresponsible, yellow journalism.”

Shafran acknowledged that a community’s adherence to health guidelines was unlikely to draw headlines, but declaimed what he said was the tendency of many in the media to “zero in on rabble-rousers and irresponsible actors,” even if they’re in the minority.

He said the lack of compliance to virus  guidelines in some parts of the Orthodox community could be due to the “right-wing radio factor — the belief among many Haredim that, as talk-show blowhards and some political figures claim, the virus is a hoax or something exaggerated.”

Community activist Heshy Tischler dances with protesters who gathered in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park to denounce lockdowns of their neighborhood due to a spike in COVID-19 cases on October 7, 2020 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

One of the organizers of this week’s protests, far-right community activist and radio show host Heshy Tischler, has claimed that figures from city health officials pointing to an uptick in infections were falsified.

Tischler sported a blue “Orthodox Jews for Trump” sticker on his shirt for much of the Wednesday night protest, which also saw several participants waving large flags in support of US President Donald Trump’s reelection. Trump has consistently downplayed the threat posed by the virus, and disputed recommendations from leading health officials.

Shafran added that the lack of compliance in recent months had less to do with allegiance to far-right shock-jocks, and was “more due to the lack of sirens and funerals.”

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