Top ultra-Orthodox leader tells yeshiva heads: Don’t rush to quarantine students

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who sought to keep schools open when virus first hit, issues instructions against isolating students who came into contact with COVID-19 carriers

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky seen at his home in the city of Bnei Brak on his 92nd birthday, January 11, 2019. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky seen at his home in the city of Bnei Brak on his 92nd birthday, January 11, 2019. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

A prominent leader of the ultra-Orthodox community has instructed heads of yeshivas and other Haredi institutions not to rush to send students into government-mandated isolation after coming into contact with coronavirus carriers because it could impinge upon the study of Torah.

By law, Israelis must enter quarantine for 14 days after being exposed to a person who tests positive for the novel coronavirus.

According to Hebrew-language media reports, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky said Tuesday that sending students into legally required quarantine could lead to “damaging the study of Torah, heaven forbid.”

Kanievsky, considered among the most important leaders of the non-Hasidic branch of ultra-Orthodox Jewry in Israel, added that “it is the duty of the heads of the yeshivas to allow the study [to continue] in a way that is not dangerous,” without expounding.

The comments by Kanievsky came as Israeli children were returning to school following summer break, amid fears from officials that students could serve as major coronavirus infection vectors.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at his home in Bnei Brak on April 15, 2018. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

In March, as the pandemic began to spread in Israel, Kanievsky announced through a spokesman that study halls should remain open, as “canceling Torah study is more dangerous than the coronavirus.”

His edict, which he later rescinded, was partially blamed for high infection rates in ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel, including in his hometown of Bnei Brak.

According to Health Ministry figures, ultra-Orthodox communities have led the country in infection rates, though in recent months morbidity levels have dropped off.

Several cities marked as hot zones under a plan implemented earlier this week are ultra-Orthodox, including the West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit.

On Monday, the city protested an order to close schools after being designated a “red city,” or high infection zone, under coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu’s “traffic light” program.

The program, which is meant to help the country fight the coronavirus while avoiding a total lockdown, designates cities, towns, and regional councils as red, orange, yellow, or green based on the number of confirmed cases per capita and the rate at which the virus is spreading in each community.

Beitar Illit Mayor Meir Rubinstein (C) at the scene of a deadly fire in the West Bank settlement on October 9, 2018. (Beitar Illit Municipality)

In response to his city being designated as “red,” the mayor of Beitar Illit, Meir Rubinstein, penned a strongly worded letter to Health Minister Yuli Edelstein asking why his city had been marked as a high infection area.

“Currently, in Beitar Illit there are 187 patients, about half of whom are in hotels, while there are many cities with a larger number of patients, who have not been designated as ‘red cities.'”

Rubinstein continued that he “would like to understand the calculations made in the Health Ministry, but the inequality between the cities and the fact that Beitar Illit entered the list of ‘red cities’ without any justification requires immediate correction.”

Sam Sokol and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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