Over 200 students at a Bnei Brak yeshiva test positive

Top ultra-Orthodox MK threatens party will exit coalition if yeshivas shuttered

Despite embrace of mask wearing and social distancing, Haredi neighborhoods hit hard by second wave of coronavirus pandemic

Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

MK Moshe Gafni has threatened to withdraw his ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party from the coalition if the government decides to close down yeshivas in the face of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following reports that both the Health Ministry and National Security Council were pushing for yeshiva closures ahead of Monday’s coronavirus-focused cabinet meeting, Gafni told Hebrew media on Sunday that such a move would force him to turn to his party’s rabbinic leadership and “advise them not to be partners in such a government.”

Israel’s yeshivas are due to close down for summer vacation in less than a month. Ultra-Orthodox schools started reopening after lockdowns eased in May, with students split up into small groups separated by plastic barriers.

Over 200 students at the Beit Matityahu Yeshiva in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in recent days, according to Hebrew media reports. Parents have alleged that yeshiva head Rabbi Baruch Weisbecker has prevented some students from being tested for the virus.

Ultra Orthodox Jews study Torah in small groups at the Imrei Emes yeshiva of the Gur Hasidic sect in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, June 16, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Earlier this month, Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush, like Gafni a representative of UTJ, told a local radio station that some members of the ultra-Orthodox community were avoiding being tested in order to prevent the government from ordering closures of their neighborhoods, such as happened in Bnei Brak and many of other ultra-Orthodox enclaves during the first wave.

“Does everyone think it’s their job to get tested when they’re feeling unwell to become just another number? No,” he said, according to a transcript of the interview published by Ynet.

“I know there are such guidelines that say, ‘If you don’t feel well – stay at home, stay in your room.’ Not everyone is at peace with the things it brings upon us, such as lockdowns.”

The ultra-Orthodox community suffered disproportionate rates of infection during the first wave of the pandemic and, at one point in April, around three-quarters of cases in Jerusalem were in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

The higher infection rates in ultra-Orthodox communities were largely ascribed to overcrowded conditions in their neighborhoods, the sector’s intensely communal nature and the initial refusal of rabbis to endorse social-distancing measures and the shutting of synagogues and other religious institutions.

However, ultra-Orthodox Jews subsequently embraced social distancing and masks, but this does not appear to have spared the community from the second wave.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray outside a closed yeshiva in Bnei Brak on March 26, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

On Friday, the Corona National Information and Knowledge Center reported that coronavirus cases in the capital had doubled in the preceding week, with most of the rise concentrated in ultra-Orthodox and East Jerusalem neighborhoods.

“In light of the morbidity data, it is recommended to focus on information and enforcement in the ultra-Orthodox and East Jerusalem neighborhoods,” the center said.

In the wake of the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, the Karlin Hasidic sect announced that it would shutter all of its educational institutions and recommended that its adherents begin praying at home instead of in synagogues, the ultra-Orthodox Behadrei Haredim news website reported Sunday.

The Knesset’s coronavirus committee voted on Sunday to approve government regulations limiting gatherings in bars, event halls and synagogues to 50 people.

With virus cases nearing 1,000 daily, the cabinet was set to meet on Monday to approve additional restrictions.

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