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Ultra-Orthodox burn masks in mass Brooklyn protest against new NY virus rules

Violent demonstrations lay bare frustration felt by local Hasidic Jews now at center of first widespread resurgence of COVID-19 in New York since spring

Orthodox residents of Borough Park burned masks and blocked city buses October 6, 2020, to protest Gov. Andrew Cuomo's announcement that he would impose new restrictions on areas with upticks in COVID-19. (Screenshots from WhatsApp via JTA)
Orthodox residents of Borough Park burned masks and blocked city buses October 6, 2020, to protest Gov. Andrew Cuomo's announcement that he would impose new restrictions on areas with upticks in COVID-19. (Screenshots from WhatsApp via JTA)

JTA — Protests by Orthodox Jews against New York’s crackdown on gatherings in their neighborhoods turned tense and at times violent Tuesday night as throngs of young men demonstrated in the streets of Borough Park.

The late-night protest in a heavily Orthodox area of Brooklyn took aim at new restrictions that would close schools, limit attendance at synagogues services and close nonessential businesses in areas with upticks in COVID-19.

The protestors set fire to a pile of masks. At one point they surrounded a city bus that was moving through the area and at another ran a reporter out of the area.

In a particularly violent episode, one man — the brother of Mordy Getz, a well-known Orthodox businessman who was outspoken about the need for masks and social distancing earlier in the pandemic — was beaten so severely by protesters after he took a video of the scene that he was taken to the hospital. Onlookers could be heard calling him a moser, one who informs on fellow Jews to the authorities and who some Jewish legal authorities say can be killed as a result, an insult applied to his brother back in April, as he was placed on a stretcher to be taken to the hospital.

The protests laid bare the frustration felt by local Orthodox Jews who are now at the center of the first widespread resurgence of COVID in New York since the spring. Many in the community believe that city and state officials are unfairly targeting Orthodox Jews, who are already vulnerable to anti-Semitism, in their pandemic response. Local elected officials and community leaders on Tuesday vowed to resist the latest rules, through litigation and civil disobedience.

“We will not close,” radio host and local celebrity Heshy Tischler proclaimed to cheers from the assembled crowds. Later, he told protesters, “You are my soldiers. We are at war.”

Dov Hikind, a former state assemblyman who is a leader in the community, said the form the protests took were regrettable.

“I’m ashamed of what happened,” Hikind said. “To raise your hand and touch another person, Jew or non-Jew, to injure someone and have them end up in the hospital, what a tragedy.”

He added, “If there would have been a protest last night organized by community leaders and elected officials where everyone was wearing a mask, then of course there’s no problem. … There’s nothing wrong with expressing yourself.”

The protests came in response to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement Tuesday afternoon of new restrictions on a large swath of Brooklyn that is experiencing an uptick in COVID cases. His announcement followed a similar one by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who on Sunday, during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot when Orthodox Jews do not use cellphones or computers, said he would move to close schools on Wednesday, pending the governor’s approval. The governor then announced Monday that he would close the schools Tuesday. (Most Orthodox schools are in fact closed this week for Sukkot.)

In a statement Tuesday evening, local Orthodox lawmakers accused New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of “a duplicitous bait-and-switch.”

“The governor informed Jewish community leaders in a conference call that synagogues in ‘red zones’ would be permitted to operate at 50%, and he requested community cooperation, which he was assured would happen,” they wrote, referencing a call Cuomo held with Orthodox leaders Tuesday before he announced the new restrictions.

“Outrageously, just hours later, Governor Cuomo announced a draconian return to restrictions that would shutter thousands of New York businesses and limit houses of worship to a maximum capacity of 10 [no matter the maximum capacity of the building].”

A statement from Agudath Israel, an organization representing ultra-Orthodox communities, also expressed frustration with the lack of notice given about the restrictions in a call earlier in the day and suggested the new rules might be unconstitutional.

“Governor Cuomo’s surprise mass closure announcement today, and limit of 10 individuals per house of worship in ‘red zones,’ is appalling to all people of religion and good faith,” they said.

They seemed to be considering the possibility of challenging the governor’s new restrictions in court. “Agudath Israel intends to explore all appropriate measures to undo this deeply offensive action,” they said. A federal judge issued an injunction blocking New York State from imposing stricter standards on indoor gatherings at religious services than those imposed on other gathering places, citing religious liberty concerns. Agudath Israel filed an amicus brief in that case.

New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, Gov. Cuomo delivers a COVID-19 update during a briefing in New York City, September 29, 2020. (Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo via AP, File)

The protesters in Borough Park were joined Tuesday night by Tischler and their City Council representative, Kalman Yeger, who encouraged the crowd to stand up for religious freedom.

“We are not going to be deprived of the right that we have in America, like everybody else in America, the right to observe our religion,” he said in a video posted to Twitter by local news outlet BoroPark24. “I don’t care who in government thinks that they can stop us, they’re wrong. Let them try.”

Tischler also appeared later Tuesday night in Crown Heights, another heavily Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood where there are no new restrictions but where de Blasio has identified a slight uptick in COVID test positivity rates. Tischler appeared at a Simhat Beit Hashoevah, a gathering on the holiday of Sukkot that is marked by singing and dancing, and addressed the crowd.

“We have a court order, we won, our schools and shuls are open, we will not close,” he said, seemingly referring to a court injunction over the summer issued by a federal judge that blocked New York State from imposing stricter rules on religious gatherings than in other indoor venues.

“And here’s the deal, I’m filing a new court order, I’m holding Cuomo and the idiot de Blasio in contempt,” he said. “We will civil disobedience… our amendments, our first amendments, our rights, we will not close our shuls on Simchas Torah!”

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