Ultra-Orthodox schools to remain open, with students split into groups of 10

Lithuanian Haredi leadership reportedly agrees to Netanyahu’s proposal that would see yeshivas keep operating, with restrictions, after defying coronavirus orders to shut schools

Illustrative: Yeshiva students study at the Mir Brachfeld yeshiva in Modi'in Ilit on August 26, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Illustrative: Yeshiva students study at the Mir Brachfeld yeshiva in Modi'in Ilit on August 26, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox religious leaders on Sunday night said Haredi schools would remain open Monday, but said they would divide the students into groups of ten to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the chief rabbis and other ultra-Orthodox representatives on Sunday evening to convince segments of the Haredi community to shutter their schools, after they defied Health Ministry directives designed to contain the virus. All other schools in the country have been shut down by the state to stem the spread.

Following the meeting, Rabbis Chaim Kanievsky and Gershon Edelstein, prominent leaders venerated by hundreds of thousands of followers in the Lithuanian sect, agreed Sunday night to a proposal backed by Netanyahu that would see no more than 10 students learning in a single classroom. Kanievsky last week had ordered his followers to ignore the Health Ministry’s coronavirus restrictions by keeping schools open.

Israel on Saturday night limited all gatherings to 10 people.

It remained unclear whether the institutions, many of which suffer from overcrowding, would find sufficient space to split up the students. The agreement referred to Talmud Torahs, or elementary schools, yeshiva high schools, and yeshivas of post-high school learning.

The meeting on Sunday saw Netanyahu sit down with the chief rabbis, representatives of rabbinical councils, the head of the yeshiva council, and the leaders of the Haredi political parties, his office said.

“During the meeting, it was decided that the Health Ministry directives must be upheld, while solutions are found for the Talmud Torahs [ultra-Orthodox schools],” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at his home in Bnei Brak on April 15, 2018. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Earlier Sunday, a group of police officials were spotted entering the home of Rabbi Kanievsky in the Haredi Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, accompanied by senior members of Hatzalah, an ultra-Orthodox emergency volunteer service, according to the B’hadrei Haredim news site.

According to B’hadrei Haredim, the group of officers brought with them a document with a declaration about the importance of following the orders of medical professionals with regards to the coronavirus outbreak, and they were seeking to convince Kanievsky to sign off on it. There was no public statement from religious authorities regarding any conclusions from the meeting.

In addition to Kanievsky, the group of police officers made stops at the homes of other senior rabbis in the Lithuanian sect, including Yitzhak Zilberstein, Shimon Adani, Shmuel Eliezer Stern, and Yehuda Silman, who also had ordered students to stay in yeshivas, despite the Health Ministry guidelines ordering all schools shut.

Kanievsky had also issued an edict on Sunday telling followers that the best ways to defeat the virus are to avoid lashon hara (gossiping about one’s peers), to be more humble, and to place the needs of others before their own.

In addition to yeshivas affiliated with Kanievsky’s Lithuanian sect, another seminary belonging to Health Minister Yaakov Litzman’s Gur Hasidic sect was also filmed fully operating on Sunday, in violation of government guidelines.

Police issued a statement Sunday afternoon saying they were aware of the violations made by yeshivas that chose to remain open and that disciplinary measures would be taken by local authorities.

Leaders from other wings of Orthodox Judaism, including the national religious camp and ultra-Orthodox Hasidim, ordered their followers to close schools in line with the public health guidelines.

Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau, was photographed Sunday morning demonstrating a personal example to followers, as he prayed in a quorum outdoors with at least two meters of space between worshipers.

Last week, as concerns regarding the outbreak were beginning to spike, Lau issued a statement noting the injunction of the medieval sages that the “requirement to take care of yourself in order to avoid hurting a fellow person supersedes even the requirement to take care of yourself for your own sake.”

“The coronavirus can pass from a completely healthy person to someone else and endanger that second person. That means absolute obedience to the instructions [of health officials] is required, even if they are difficult and inconvenient,” he wrote.

“Someone in quarantine or who is at high risk [from the virus] must pray in their home, and try to time their prayer to coincide with the public prayer,” he added.

Late Saturday evening, the Health Ministry sent out a message clarifying a raft of new regulations announced hours earlier by Netanyahu to combat the spread of the coronavirus, including banning gatherings of more than 10 people.

The message emphasized that all educational institutions would be shut down starting Sunday, regardless of the number of children per classroom, among them daycare centers — including home daycares — special education, youth movements, and after-school programs.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man wearing a plastic-covered hat speaks on the phone at the nearly deserted Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 12, 2020, after Israel announced new restrictions to contain the coronavirus. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

The Health Ministry said gyms, pools, water and amusement parks, zoos and petting zoos, bathhouses and ritual baths for men, beauty and massage salons, event and conference venues, public boats and cable cars, and heritage sites would have to close as well.

It highlighted that the ban against congregating in groups larger than 10 extended to gatherings for religious activities — the minimum number of men for an Orthodox prayer quorum, or “minyan,” is 10 — and mandated that people participating in such activities maintain a distance of at least two meters from one another.

The directives also included a limit on visiting nursing homes for more than one person at a time — and preferably limited to a regular caregiver.

It said that, “for now,” people will still be allowed to go to work — though workplaces were encouraged to continue to prepare to facilitate work from home — but must maintain a distance of two meters from one another.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Health Ministry also said Israelis should refrain from traveling in a car in groups larger than two and recommended that people refrain as much as possible from using public transportation.

The number of Israelis diagnosed with coronavirus rose to 213 on Sunday evening. The Health Ministry said two of the sick remained in serious condition, with 11 in moderate condition and the rest suffering mild symptoms. Meanwhile, nearly 40,000 Israelis were in home quarantines for fear of exposure to the virus, including nearly 1,000 doctors, more than 600 nurses, 170 paramedics, and 80 pharmacists, according to Health Ministry figures. Health officials have conducted over 6,800 coronavirus tests nationwide so far, according to the ministry.

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