Top ultra-Orthodox rabbi orders schools shut ‘for several days’ during lockdown

Following criticism, grandson of Chaim Kanievsky tells Netanyahu influential leader has ordered educational institutions temporarily shuttered amid surging cases

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky attends a campaign event for the ultra-Orthodox Degel HaTorah party in the northern city of Safed on February 26, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky attends a campaign event for the ultra-Orthodox Degel HaTorah party in the northern city of Safed on February 26, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

As Israel prepared to go into a tightened lockdown at midnight, a powerful leader of the Haredi community on Thursday apparently ordered ultra-Orthodox schools to shut “for several days” following the intervention of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The grandson of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky said Netanyahu phoned him over the issue and he conveyed to the prime minister that the rabbi has ordered ultra-Orthodox schools closed amid a huge spike in infections.

The national lockdown is set to last for two weeks, but some officials believe it will need to be extended to get surging infection rates under control.

Kanievsky’s instructions, rather than the government order, are the final word for many in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the media in the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 2, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The announcement came following reports on Wednesday that Kanievsky had instructed Haredi institutions to keep running despite the countrywide shutdown.

All schools and daycares in the country are to shut under the tightened restrictions as cases rapidly increase in the education system.

However, Kanievsky has in the past ordered ultra-Orthodox schools to remain open as lockdown measures were in force.

The opening of schools is seen as a danger, with many of the ultra-Orthodox areas having high infection rates and indoor spaces understood to be major virus incubators.

Illustrative — Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study at the Gur Imrei Emes yeshiva in Bnei Brak, June 16, 2020 (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Kanievsky is a hugely influential leader of the non-Hasidic Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, with hundreds of thousands of followers.

He was confirmed to have the coronavirus in October, just two days after the Haaretz daily reported that he violated quarantine, hosting visitors at his home in Bnei Brak despite being required to self-isolate due to his exposure to a confirmed coronavirus carrier.

Kanievsky has faced intense criticism for his handling of the pandemic and rulings given to his followers, and has instructed schools to reopen in defiance of government decisions, leading hundreds of institutions to illicitly open their doors throughout the pandemic.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and his grandson Yaakov Kanievsky (L) at the former’s home in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak on September 22, 2020. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

With tightened lockdown restrictions set to come into force Thursday night, police vowed to up enforcement, but anonymous police officials told the Haaretz daily that officers wouldn’t take action against Haredi schools that remain open in violation of the lockdown.

“You won’t see officers dispersing children at educational institutions and you won’t see officers entering schools and synagogues,” one of the officials said.

Ran Balicer, who heads a national team of experts on the virus, said Wednesday that while infections had dropped dramatically in the ultra-Orthodox community in October due to adherence to the regulations, the situation was now life-threatening.

“For several weeks, the number of new infections has been doubling every week,” he told the Kan public broadcaster. “I hope and assume the community leaders will understand that and take appropriate action.”

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