Haredi communities urged to ‘wake up’ as infections in Bnei Brak, Jerusalem soar

Health Ministry data shows cities, home to large ultra-Orthodox communities, have highest numbers of coronavirus patients and much higher infection rates than national average

An ultra-Orthodox youth plays with a face mask in the neighborhood of Mea Sharim, Jerusalem, on March 16, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An ultra-Orthodox youth plays with a face mask in the neighborhood of Mea Sharim, Jerusalem, on March 16, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The ultra-Orthodox community in Israel is seeing steep infection rates and a sharp rise in diagnoses of coronavirus in recent days, according to local leaders, health ministry data and Hebrew media reports.

Health Ministry reports have shown the two cities with the highest infection numbers are currently Jerusalem (352) and the largely ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak (267), followed by Tel Aviv (211).

According to a report in Haaretz Friday, a significant portion of the Jerusalem patients are also from the Haredi community.

Officials have attributed the high infection rates in the region to a lack of adherence to Health Ministry guidelines (there have been many reports of large gatherings taking place in those communities for weddings, prayer services and other events in spite of announced restrictions), the crowdedness of many ultra-Orthodox communities and a lack of access by many to media and communication means.

On several occasions clashes have been reported between members of the communities and police forces attempting to enforce lockdown and distancing orders.

Similar scenes have been reported in the United States.

Bnei Brak Mayor Avraham Rubinstein, himself currently quarantined for fear of exposure, urged residents Friday to “wake up!” He said the city was seeing the highest infection rate in the country, with “the forecast far more frightening.” Rubinstein called on the public to “stop with the wise-guy minyans [quorum of 10 Jewish adults required for prayer] of more than 10, keep your distances, and stop the crowding and congestion at supermarkets. Just stay at home and be careful, this is dangerous.”

More than 150 ultra-Orthodox Jews defy Health Ministry coronavirus warnings and take part in a wedding in the city of Beit Shemesh on March 17, 2020 (Screen capture: Channel 12)

Earlier this week a government body reported that synagogues have been the top contagion spots in Israel, with infections there accounting for nearly a quarter of known cases not brought in from abroad or contracted at home.

According to Haaretz, internal Health Ministry data has shown the rate of infection in Bnei Brak has been several times higher than the average in the country, with the number of patients increasing eightfold every three days (compared to a twofold national average). In Jerusalem the cases have quadrupled in the same period.

Several local leaders in ultra-Orthodox communities complained to the paper that very little information on infections was filtering down to their people in comparison to the general population. Haaretz noted that some half of the Haredi population has only highly limited kosher cellphones which are incapable of receiving quarantine notices from the Health Ministry.

“Everything here is being conducted by word of mouth rumors,” one official in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modiin Illit told the paper. “Someone hears the neighbor was infected and things are passed on. There’s no monitoring or oversight.”

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

According to Channel 12 news, as infection numbers have soared (from some 400 patients 10 days ago to 3,035 as of Saturday), more and more ultra-Orthodox communities have come to recognize the truth of the threat, and adherence to social distancing measures has grown.

Religious leaders have increasingly taken steps to encourage their communities to isolate from others, heavily curbing prayer services and allowing the use of phones on Shabbat for virus warnings. On Thursday several Sephardic Orthodox rabbis even declared that families could conduct next month’s Passover seder over videoconference.

Social distancing restrictions have led to extraordinary scenes at the Western Wall, where on Friday the plaza was once again nearly empty.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks at the almost empty Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 27, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Friday that if there is not an improvement in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the next two days, he will have no choice but to order the country into a complete shutdown.

Netanyahu held a series of discussions with top ministers regarding additional steps the country can take to manage the ongoing crisis, “including preparations for a closure,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

Since Wednesday at 5 p.m., Israelis have been ordered to remain in their homes unless they are taking part in a small number of specially designated approved activities, including going to work (in some cases), purchasing food and medicine or a short walk of no more than 100 meters from one’s home. Those found violating those regulations are subject to large fines of upwards of NIS 500 ($140) and even imprisonment.

Some 500 soldiers will be deployed across the country beginning Sunday to assist police in enforcing the government’s latest restrictions on movement to stem the coronavirus pandemic, the IDF announced Friday.

Four more Israelis died of the coronavirus on Friday, bringing the country’s death toll to 12, as the number of infections nationwide climbed to 3,035. Of them, 49 are in serious condition and 60 are in moderate condition.

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