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Reporter's notebook

Unmoved by COVID rules, ultra-Orthodox in Brooklyn celebrate holiday under radar

Scant few in hotspot Borough Park seen wearing masks as they head to synagogues for Simhat Torah eve, apparently choosing to violate guidelines beyond sight of few cops on patrol

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Illustrative: Young members of the Hasidic community gather in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park to denounce lockdowns of their neighborhood due to a spike in COVID-19 cases on October 7, 2020, in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)
Illustrative: Young members of the Hasidic community gather in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park to denounce lockdowns of their neighborhood due to a spike in COVID-19 cases on October 7, 2020, in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

BOROUGH PARK, New York — “Would you like a mask?”

A bare-faced ultra-Orthodox father pointed to the back of the twin stroller he was pushing and told the New York City employee addressing him that he had a mask inside.

“If you don’t mind just putting it on,” Miguel, the young city worker, responded bashfully, invoking the requirement to wear masks in public spaces.

The father nodded and started rummaging through the lower section of the stroller. He continued moving, and after reaching a distance roughly 20 feet away from Miguel, stopped searching entirely.

This was just one of the dozens of times that the city employee was largely dismissed by passersby during his three-hour shift Saturday evening at the corner of 55th Street and 13th Avenue in Borough Park.

Miguel had arrived stocked with two packages of 100 blue, disposable masks but barely managed to deplete his supply. Not because residents didn’t need them. They just weren’t interested.

Asked why he wasn’t fining violators, Miguel said doing so would require passersby to have ID on them, which was not the case for the Haredi residents due to the holiday.

Worshipers file out of the Bais Medrash Yeshuas Moshe Viznitz in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park on October 11, 2020. (Times of Israel)

Only a small fraction of the hundreds of Haredim seen by this reporter roaming the streets on the eve of the Simhat Torah holiday were wearing masks.

The predominantly ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Brooklyn made headlines earlier in the week for being the site of two at-times unruly protests where hundreds of community members took to the streets to voice their frustration over new lockdown measures imposed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. They say Haredi communities — heavily represented among the nine ZIP codes targeted with the strictest set of measures — were being singled out by the governor.

But Cuomo argues that the measures are necessary to prevent another mass outbreak. He said Saturday that the “red zone” ZIP codes accounted for 18% of positive tests despite being just 2.8% of the state population. Friday saw 236 new confirmed cases in Brooklyn, compared to 140 in Queens, 79 in Manhattan, 71 in the Bronx and 49 in Staten Island, according to figures from the New York City Department of Health.

Many Haredi residents of Brooklyn have taken particular umbrage at new restrictions on houses of worship, barring more than 10 people from praying indoors. The timing of the latest restriction made it particularly difficult to swallow, given that Simhat Torah typically sees synagogues packed with worshipers dancing for hours in celebration of completing the annual cycle of weekly Torah readings.

The festive processions often spill out onto the streets and, at some Haredi synagogues in Borough Park, have been known to continue into the early hours of the morning.

But the restrictions that went into effect this week include a ban on outdoor gatherings, so worshipers remained inside synagogues for the entirety of the Saturday evening services, apparently preferring to violate guidelines out of the sight of the one or two police vehicles seen circling the neighborhood.

A Haredi family walks in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park on October 11, 2020. (Times of Israel staff)

An officer from the NYPD’s Public Information Office told The Times of Israel that police had not received reports of anything out of the ordinary on Saturday night.

The dozen or so synagogues this reporter walked by were filled with dozens of worshipers, and most who entered were not wearing masks. An unsuspecting passerby would likely not have noticed the large crowds because most synagogues had built a temporary Sukkah shelter right next to the building that shielded those crowding at the entrance.

The only telltale sign at some of the synagogues were the dozens of baby strollers parked outside.

Intent on observing the scene for himself, one local news reporter tried walking into a service on 13th Avenue and 50th Street, but was quickly spotted by members, likely due to the fact that he was the only man there not in a long black suit.

“You’re trespassing!” one of them shouted at him, as over a dozen others began to swarm. The ringleader was the only one wearing a mask, which had “Trump 2020” on it. He ordered the reporter to leave the area and followed him down 13th Avenue to make sure he didn’t return.

(Watching from afar as the scene unfolded, I decided to remove my press card from my wallet and place it inside my shoe. While the Saturday night altercation did not deteriorate into violence, just four days earlier another journalist had been attacked by a mob of protesters, and it appeared wise to keep as low a profile as possible — particularly given that it was a holiday, during which reporters are especially unwelcome in the neighborhood.)

A sukkah outside of the Bais Medrash Yeshuas Moshe Viznitz in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park on October 11, 2020. (Times of Israel staff)

At this point an older Haredi gentleman who witnessed the local journalist being chased away shuffled past Miguel and asked him, “Do you see the media going into other communities and harassing people like this?”

Miguel appeared more thrown off by the lack of mask-wearing in the community and asked the gray-bearded man who was wearing one why his peers weren’t following suit.

“You know there’s a $1,000 fine?” the city employee inquired.

The man shrugged his shoulders and replied, “It’s not that people are doing it in spite. They just aren’t that worried. Either because they don’t think there’s a high chance they’ll get the virus or because if they do, it’s [God’s] plan.”

Then he added: “How are we supposed to decide which people get to be among the ten who get to daven inside?”

Miguel did not appear to recognize the Yiddish word for pray, and therefore didn’t have an answer. The Haredi gentleman walked away, leaving both of them unsatisfied.

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