A top rabbi of the ultra-Orthodox community has reportedly instructed yeshiva students not to be tested for the coronavirus to avoid closures of schools and mass quarantines.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky cited a “fear of massive damage to Torah study” in his instruction, according to a Wednesday report by the Kikar Hashabbat website, which caters to the ultra-Orthodox community.
Kanievsky, considered among the most important leaders of the non-Hasidic branch of ultra-Orthodox Jewry in Israel, expressed concern that the testing process would take students away from their studies and that positive results would require those who came in contact with the patient to quarantine, further disrupting yeshiva life.
Haredi magazine Mishpacha later reported that the rabbi was not referring to a blanket policy, but rather was speaking of specific circumstances regarding students who had been tested two weeks prior and who had since maintained isolated study “capsules.” However there were conflicting reports on the matter, with multiple media outlets, including Channel 12 and Walla news, citing officials close to the rabbi as confirming his rejection of tests without providing caveats.
Kanievsky also cited harm to Torah studies a day earlier when he told yeshiva administrators not to quarantine their students who are exposed to virus carriers, as is required under Health Ministry regulations aimed at curbing an ongoing major outbreak of the coronavirus.
In urging against the virus tests, Kanievsky also advised that rabbis who are at risk due to their age or health factors should maintain a distance from students.
According to the Kikar Hashabbat report, Kanievsky’s instructions did not apply to high school yeshivas. Unlike the higher yeshivas, where students are at least 17-18 years of age and often sleep on-site in dormitories, many yeshiva high school students return to their homes every evening, bringing them in contact with a greater pool of people and therefore posing a great risk of spreading infections.
Therefore, students at high schools should get a virus test if they show any of the symptoms of the disease, Kanievsky instructed.
Israel’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu, the official leading the Israeli response to the outbreak, said in response that Kanievsky’s statements “endanger the ultra-Orthodox public.”
Binyamin Cohen, director of the yeshiva committee control center tasked with overseeing institutes’ adherence to government guidelines, said in a statement to the ultra-Orthodox news site that out of 25,000 yeshiva students, around 500 have been diagnosed so far with the virus and are in quarantine wings within the yeshivas, where they are able to continue with their studies while isolated.
However, according to the Ynet news site, some 800 yeshiva students were found positive for COVID-19 in recent days, leading to thousands being ordered into quarantine.
On Wednesday, around 100 students at a yeshiva in the northern city of Karmiel were diagnosed with the disease, the control committee said.
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, Kanievsky on Tuesday said that sending students into legally required quarantine could lead to “damaging the study of Torah, heaven forbid.”
Kanievsky 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.
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-city of Beitar Illit.
On Monday, Beitar Illit 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.
Bnei Brak is also expected to soon be declared a “red city” according to Hebrew media reports.
Israel has seen nearly 120,000 coronavirus infections and 963 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Sam Sokol and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.