Ultra-Orthodox Israelis 2.5 times more likely to test positive, virus czar says

Gamzu tells ministers 28.6% of tests administered in Haredi towns have come back positive, compared to 13.4% in Arab locales and 11.9% for rest of country

Police officers close synagogues and hand out fines to Haredi Jews in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, following government restrictions imposed as part of the effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, April 6, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police officers close synagogues and hand out fines to Haredi Jews in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, following government restrictions imposed as part of the effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, April 6, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis are 2.5 times more likely to test positive for the coronavirus, the government’s COVID-19 czar, Ronni Gamzu, reportedly told ministers during Wednesday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting.

Roughly 28.6 percent of virus tests administered in Haredi communities returned a positive result in recent days, compared to 13.4% of the tests from Arab communities and 11.9% of the tests in the rest of the country, data Gamzu presented to ministers showed, according to Channel 12.

The rising and disproportionate number of cases among the Haredi public come amid growing criticism of the religious minority for not adhering to government guidelines.

One of the factors that is believed to have led to the latest outbreak was the reopening of yeshivot, or religious seminaries, to tens of thousands of students in mid-August. Indeed, figures cited by Channel 12 Wednesday showed that the majority of cases in ultra-Orthodox towns were among young men between the ages of 17 and 24, followed by their younger peers between the ages of 10 and 16.

Health officials in cooperation with senior rabbis of the ultra-Orthodox community had sought to prevent an outbreak, formulating a plan that saw some 25,000 yeshiva students spend the High Holidays together in isolated “capsules,” or pods.

Students at a yeshiva in Rishon Lezion dance after the end of Yom Kippur, September 28, 2020 (Twitter screenshot)

However, the Ynet news site reported Wednesday that 6,000 of those students still tested positive for COVID-19.

Moreover, the report said, in addition to the 25,000 yeshiva students whose educational institutions chose to participate in the capsule program, there were dozens of other institutions — housing some 16,000 students — that refused to cooperate with the Health Ministry and observed the holidays without taking similar precautions. Because those yeshivas operated “under the radar,” no widespread testing was conducted there, health officials said.

The national religious news site Srugim reported that thousands of Haredim returned home Monday night after spending Yom Kippur in group prayers in contravention of guidelines. Dozens of buses took worshipers back to ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods at the end of the holiday under the guise of heading for demonstrations, which are currently permitted under the law, the site reported.

The Haaretz daily reported that tens of thousands of yeshiva students were sent home for vacation Tuesday, after weeks of study together, without receiving test results showing them to be negative for coronavirus — as had been required by the government as part of the “capsule” program.

Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy told reporters Wednesday that although the death rate in the ultra-Orthodox community remained relatively low in comparison with the general population and Arab community — presumably due to the relatively young age of many of those infected — it was undergoing a “steep increase.”

He said that 34% of those diagnosed with the virus in Israel were ultra-Orthodox, though the community constitutes only approximately 12% of the population.

“The ultra-Orthodox community, due to overcrowding and prayers that sometimes violate the rules of conduct, has reached a high level of morbidity. It must be treated and a solution must be found, because it affects ultra-Orthodox society, the infection rate in general and hospitals,” Levy said, without giving specifics on the timeframe for his infection statistics.

While Haredi community leaders insisted that their residents were abiding by the lockdown restrictions, Channel 12 reported that five enormous communal sukkahs had gone up in the Jerusalem Haredi neighborhood of Mea Shearim. The semi-aerated huts will be able to hold thousands of people each during the Sukkot holiday, which starts on Friday evening.

There was no police presence at the scene, the network said.

Roi Waldman, a senior police officer, promised to Channel 12 that cops “will be there” starting Thursday to enforce virus restrictions.

Current health guidelines bar more than 20 people from gathering outdoors beyond 1,000 meters from one’s home.

Reports also surfaced Tuesday of a number of incidents in which coronavirus restrictions were flouted in various ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods.

In once case, police arrived at a synagogue in the central city of Modiin Illit, where they found dozens of worshipers praying together without masks or observing social distancing regulations. Officers broke up the gathering and took five worshipers in for questioning.

Another ultra-Orthodox event broken up by police was held Monday evening in the primarily ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, with a large gathering of the Vizhnitz Hasidic sect. Videos of the event showed many people close together without masks.

Spanning outward to the national level, Health Ministry coronavirus figures updated Wednesday evening showed that the country’s total death had risen to 1,552, thanks to 17 new casualties since the previous day.

Israel had a total of 243,895 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic, with 68,110 active cases, 821 of them serious and 255 in moderate condition. The Health Ministry figures showed that 5,443 Israelis had tested positive since midnight Tuesday.

The Health Ministry figures showed that 34,557 tests were carried out on Tuesday, as the government gradually seeks to return to the testing numbers — 50,000-60,000 daily tests — that were catalogued ahead of Yom Kippur over the weekend. However, the percentage of positive virus tests remained high, standing at 13.4 percent Tuesday.

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