Belz Hassidic head: We need to continue Torah life as usual

Ultra-Orthodox seen flouting virus rules with mass holiday celebrations

Fighting reported as police fine, but do not shut down, one Jerusalem gathering, videos show hundreds disregarding guidelines elsewhere as well

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews dance during Simchat Torah celebrations, October 10, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews dance during Simchat Torah celebrations, October 10, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Jewish worshipers in several cities held large celebrations to mark the holiday of Simchat Torah Saturday, in apparent contravention of lockdown rules forbidding gatherings.

Meanwhile, thousands of people flocked to beaches in Tel Aviv and other areas on the coast, breaking rules that outlaw visits to the seaside.

Reports and videos proliferated Saturday evening showing holiday celebrations at synagogues in ultra-Orthodox areas and elsewhere to mark the end of Simchat Torah.

The holiday, at the end of Sukkot, marks the completion of the yearly cycle of Torah readings and the beginning of a new one. It is traditionally celebrated with hakafot, when worshipers gather at synagogues and circle the prayer hall en masse while holding Torah scrolls and dancing. A second round of hakafot, often with live music, is traditionally held in the nighttime directly after the end of the holiday.

Israeli guidelines forbid prayers in closed spaces and are supposed to limit outdoor gatherings to 20 people.

In Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, celebrations were seen taking place at several synagogues or study halls, with little police interference, the Ynet news website reported.

Video outside a study hall belonging to the hard-line ultra-Orthodox Toldot Aharon sect in Jerusalem showed dozens of people attempting to enter a building where celebrations were taking place.

According to the Kan news outlet, guards were limiting entry to members of the sect.

The Kan outlet also published video from another synagogue in the area with dozens of people crowded together. Few masks could be seen.

In the nearby neighborhood of Geula, police clashed with worshipers as they attempted to disperse a gathering, with some hurling citron fruits, traditionally used over Sukkot, at police, Ynet reported.

Police reportedly arrested two people at a synagogue in the neighborhood, but left without shutting down the festivities.

The outlet said dozens of buses appeared to be ferrying ultra-Orthodox community members in and out of Jerusalem, despite a ban on traveling more than a kilometer from home. The buses had signs claiming they were taking people to a “protest against religious persecution,” though rules in place for over a week forbid travel for protests. Community members had previously used the guise of protesting in order to travel for the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

In Modiin Ilit,  an ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement near the city of Modi’in, police published video of officers dispersing gatherings at synagogues. A tweet from police said several tickets had been issued for improper mask-wearing.

Police also reportedly broke up gatherings in Beitar Illit, another ultra-Orthodox settlement.

Video out of Tiberias also showed a mass gathering in the northern city.

In other areas, worshipers were seen keeping to guidelines mandating distancing and remaining outdoors.

There has been loud criticism of Haredi communities for not adhering to government guidelines, including continuing to host mass gatherings over the holiday period, despite high levels of transmission within the community.

Ahead of the holiday, Israel’s chief rabbis implored Israelis to refrain from praying indoors and kissing Torah scrolls during the holiday.

However, some rabbis in Hasidic communities have continued to allow gatherings, creating a rift within the larger ultra-Orthodox world.

Rabbi Issachar Dov Rokach, head of the Belz Hassidic dynasty, said Saturday that adherence to virus regulations should not come at the expense of Jewish life.

“We are in a difficult time, which we will overcome with God’s help,” Rokach said. “Some people think that the requirements of the authorities should be satisfied, as if this is the only Torah. But we need to continue Torah life as usual.”

Israel has been under nationwide lockdown since mid-September, and has seen infection rates ebb in the last several days, leading to hopes of a gradual economic reopening.

Israelis on the beach promenade in Tel Aviv on October 10, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

While lockdown rules allow trips to outdoor parks within a kilometer of peoples’ homes, beaches are generally excluded from the exemption.

Nonetheless, thousands of people visited beaches in Tel Aviv and elsewhere on Saturday, with police in some places handing out fines and even handcuffing one person who refused to identify herself.

Pictures showed most on the beach keeping their distance, though many were not wearing masks. Most health experts believe outdoor spaces to be much safer than indoors, though there is still a risk of spreading the virus.

Israelis on the beach in Tel Aviv on October 10, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israeli ministers ordered the beaches closed after ultra-Orthodox lawmakers had insisted that it would not be right to allow people to visit the sea but not synagogues.

“If I were sitting in a crowded [study hall], that would be okay, but on the sand is forbidden. That’s totally stupid,” one beach-goer, who said he lived within a kilometer, told Ynet, referring to claims of uneven police enforcement.

According to the Haaretz daily, police have generally taken a softer approach to enforcing virus rules among the ultra-Orthodox, and have turned a bling eye to some illegal synagogue gatherings.

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis account for a disproportionately high number of the total coronavirus cases across the country, according to Health Ministry figures released Friday evening.

Medical team members take swabs to test for the coronavirus disease at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on October 8, 2020 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The current lockdown, Israel’s second since the pandemic started, began on September 18 before Rosh Hashanah and was tightened a week later. It is currently set to end on October 14.

It has been marked by clashes between enforcing police and ultra-Orthodox protesters, as well as between police and anti-government protesters who are calling for Netanyahu’s resignation due to his ongoing corruption trial and the government’s handling of the virus outbreak.

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