Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a prominent leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Bnei Brak, on Sunday called on his followers to perform their prayers individually and not in quorums of ten, as permitted by the Health Ministry.
The comments come after thousands of residents of Bnei Brak, a predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of nearly 200,000 people, took part in a funeral procession for a venerated rabbi and hundreds attended his burial early Sunday morning in violation of emergency directives against the virus.
Kanievsky cited pikuah nefesh, the Jewish imperative to save lives, as praying in groups could endanger people’s health.
Kanievsky also said that whoever doesn’t adhere to the instructions of doctors was a rodef, or threat to society.
The ruling marked a reversal for Kanievsky, who two weeks ago pushed back on government orders to shutter schools and yeshivas to curb the spread of the virus, insisting that Torah study continue uninterrupted.
Israel allows up to 20 people to attend religious events such as a funeral or wedding, provided they maintain a distance of at least 2 meters (6.5 feet) between each other.
Police were on hand to oversee and secure the funeral in the early hours of Sunday, but did not step in to enforce social distancing rules. They defended the decision by saying a clash with the participants could have brought thousands to the streets and that it was therefore preferable to let the crowd disperse on its own.
The government is considering imposing a full quarantine on the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak and other predominantly ultra-Orthodox areas amid a sharply rising number of coronavirus cases in those places, the Finance Ministry’s director-general said Sunday.
“We’re having quite a few problems with ultra-Orthodox society, in places like Bnei Brak,” Shai Babad told the Knesset’s Special Committee on Dealing With the Coronavirus.
He added: “Some of the [government] deliberation was talking about how we could maybe succeed in putting a closure in place and isolating those same areas.”
Abraham Rubinstein, the mayor of Bnei Brak, condemned the crowds at the funeral, but claimed to Channel 12 news that the government was not working with the city to enforce the restrictions.
“This is a unique community that is not exposed to the media, television, radio and internet and the information needs to be brought to the public like it knows how to receive it,” he said. “We call on the Israeli government, to those who are responsible for dealing with this, to do this.”
He also pushed back when questioned about a mass wedding held outside his home two weeks ago, which included hundreds of people crowded closely together.
“It didn’t take place at my home, [but rather] a city street in accordance with the ordinances and it was at a distance of two meters from each other,” Rubinstein said, despite video showing the wedding-goers much closer than two meters from one another.
A statement from the Bnei Brak Municipality denied Rubinstein had any connection to the wedding, asserting it was held outside a home next to his whose residents he did not know.
— החדשות – N12 (@N12News) March 29, 2020
Also Sunday, dozens of ultra-Orthodox gathered in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood in violation of the prohibitions on gatherings and verbally accosted police.
In video from the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, some of those gathered in the streets could be heard yelling “Nazi” toward police officers.
A police helicopter was eventually called in and used a loudspeaker to urge the crowds to disperse, according to Channel 12 news.
There have previously been several cases of clashes between members of ultra-Orthodox communities and police forces attempting to enforce lockdown and distancing orders.
Similar scenes have been reported in the United States.
Bnei Brak has seen the second highest number of infections in the country, according to Health Ministry figures, after Jerusalem, where the coronavirus has also spread through the 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.
Rubinstein, the Bnei Brak mayor who is 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.”
According to the Haaretz daily, 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, which also has a high ultra-Orthodox population, the cases have quadrupled in the same period.