Ultra-Orthodox in Israel hit hard by coronavirus

Ahead of Passover, and with the coronavirus spreading in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox are instructed to avoid family gatherings and praying in groups.

al-monitor Israeli police troops detain an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man as they enforce a partial coronavirus lockdown in the Mea Shearim neighborhood, Jerusalem, March 31, 2020. Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images.

Apr 6, 2020

Until the coronavirus hit, Shlomi Philip worked as a bartender at a popular Jerusalem night spot. With the bar shuttered, he now devotes his time to volunteering with Israel’s emergency medical teams testing for COVID-19.

Philip, the eldest of 15 children, is the only member of the family living outside the ultra-Orthodox Midi’in Ilit town. As such, he is the one who provides his parents and siblings with information about the coronavirus spread and the required precautions. Like many ultra-Orthodox families, Philip’s family does not have a television or internet and is completely cut off from the secular world. In recent days, cars fitted with loudspeakers have been making the rounds of ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods, exhorting residents, in Yiddish and Hebrew, to stay home, and citing rabbis’ edicts that defying authorities’ orders to self-isolate and avoid congregation endangers others and is therefore a sin.

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community of some 1.1 million, about 12% of the population, has been hardest hit by the epidemic. According to Health Ministry data, the rate of infection in ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods doubles every three days, compared with a national average rate of every six days. The number of those diagnosed with COVID-19 in the suburban ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv town of Bnei Brak was projected to be as high as 50%, said professor Joshua Shemer, chairman of the board of Assuta Medical Centers. “Bnei Brak is a disaster zone,” Shemer said on Channel 13 News, as a campaign was launched to remove all residents 80 and older from their homes to confinement centers.

This growing public health threat led to a virtual blockade of Bnei Brak in recent days, with police at roadblocks and on the streets trying to enforce quarantine orders. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced April 1 that access to and from the town would be restricted. There is almost a complete closure.  

Large families, overcrowded housing, densely populated neighborhoods, a way of life that revolves around communal and religious activity and seclusion from the secular world go a long way toward explaining the problem. Philip’s family is a case in point, with 19 people (parents and 14 children, including a married daughter, her husband and newborn baby) living in one apartment, albeit a large one of five bedrooms. “Life went on as normal for them, before I called to explain what was going on,” Philip told Al-Monitor. “In the beginning, the rabbis were saying this was no big deal, and they are the ultimate authority, not doctors or politicians. It was only when the rabbis told people not to go to synagogue and yeshivas and to stay home that they started listening.”

For his father, a yeshiva student and part-time entrepreneur, the rabbis’ edicts were nothing short of disaster. “He told me this had never happened since World War II. Their whole life revolves around the synagogue, the yeshiva,” Philip said.

“You have to understand how extraordinary this is,” Nathaniel Zelikovitz, an ultra-Orthodox social activist, told Al-Monitor. “People prayed together in Auschwitz. People prayed in Siberia. Three times a day. Now, in the Jewish state, they are being told to pray alone?”

The rabbis are scrambling to find solutions to the new restrictions, consistent with Jewish law. For example, suggesting each person pray on his balcony and thus form the required “minyan” of 10 worshipers. “But it is unclear whether it counts if there are 10 people but not everyone can see everyone else,” Zelikovitz added.

It took time for rabbis to realize the gravity of the situation and even when they did, their reluctance to violate age-old customs and Jewish law held many back. Initially, one of the supreme ultra-Orthodox authorities, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, instructed that yeshivas and synagogues be kept open in defiance of government instructions, although he subsequently tempered his order to advise study and prayer in smaller groups. It was only on March 29, after much of the (health and image) damage had been done, that he joined with other leading rabbinical authorities in ordering a halt to group prayers and study and instructing that the Passover Seder on April 8 be celebrated only by members of the same household, without guests.

The upcoming weeklong holiday is indeed a source of great concern and a challenge for community leaders. Rabbis have already given adherents leeway in terms of the strict cleaning regimen that precedes the holiday in order to rid the house of all remnants of leavened bread banned by Jewish law. The general message is that cleaning kitchen cabinets, the refrigerator and freezer will suffice; no need to turn the whole house upside down.

“This corona crisis has caught us between two of the most important Jewish holidays, both of which are celebrated with mass meals and gatherings,” said Zelikovitz. Many of the current infections are attributed to celebration of the Purim holiday March 9-10, which customarily includes handing out baskets of food and banquet-like meals. Zelikovitz said he had 30 people over in his small living room for Purim. Passover, likewise, is a highly communal holiday, and inviting as many guests as possible is a mitzvah [commandment]. It also entails shopping in large quantities, going to boil dishes at special centers to remove all traces of bread and more.

Scenes of police patrols and empty streets in the normally teeming ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods, especially prior to Passover, are now the new normal. Recent days have also generated a few rare scenes (mostly amid more extreme ultra-Orthodox sects) of police welding shut a synagogue, of a special unit raiding a yeshiva and pulling students out, and of little children cursing police, calling them “Nazis” and sneezing on them.

While those who continue to defy quarantine instructions are a minority, even the many sincerely trying to obey the new rules have to face reality. “Tom from Tel Aviv goes to the supermarket and Moishe from Bnei Brak does too. Someone sneezes next to them and both are infected. Tom goes home and at most infects his wife and child. Moishe goes home and infects his wife and 10 children,” Zelikovitz said.

He said the rising COVID-19 toll in Bnei Brak and elsewhere has given rise to much soul searching within the ultra-Orthodox community — a crisis of faith in the leadership, anger at those among them who disregarded their fellows’ health and general questions about the community’s segregation and isolation from the media.

A few have been blaming the contagion on Israel’s secular society and its wanton ways, immodest dress, and homosexuality. On the flip side, the rising ultra-Orthodox casualties are also stoking hostility toward the community, many of whose members dodge mandatory military service and study rather than work and pay taxes, and toward cynical politicians who have let these communities get away with such conduct for decades. “The public that serves in the military, maintains the economy, and funds those who study, is the one required now to pay with its physical and economic health … and the line for respirators,” legal analyst and columnist Moshe Gorali wrote in the Calcalist financial daily.

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