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Despite Heavy Toll, Some Orthodox Flout Distancing Rules
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Despite Heavy Toll, Some Orthodox Flout Distancing Rules

Worshippers seen defying their leaders’ warnings about the coronavirus.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Hundreds of Orthodox Jews gather in Borough Park on Sunday at the funeral of a rabbi who died from coronavirus. The outbreak is hitting charedi neighborhoods especially hard. Getty Images
Hundreds of Orthodox Jews gather in Borough Park on Sunday at the funeral of a rabbi who died from coronavirus. The outbreak is hitting charedi neighborhoods especially hard. Getty Images

Tami Frankel, a nurse working at Maimonides Medical Center in the heart of Brooklyn’s charedi Orthodox enclave of Borough Park, saw her professional life overtaken by the coronavirus in a matter of days.

“At first, I worked my regular shift and was floated to a corona floor to help out,” said Frankel, who works three to four 12-hour shifts a week. “By my next shift on my regular floor, the floor was converted to a corona floor.”

Even for Frankel — a health care professional and member of the area’s expansive Orthodox Jewish community who had been warning family and friends to “social distance” for weeks — the “sudden, exponential shift” in Covid-19 cases came as a shock.

Maimonides serves a diverse area where some 70 languages are spoken. But while data is difficult to come by amid a still-surging pandemic, tight-knit Orthodox communities across New York and New Jersey have been particularly hard hit by the virus, according to local medical professionals and community members.

Data from the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene published April 3 showed Borough Park and Crown Heights, home to large charedi Orthodox communities, among the neighborhoods with the highest case counts (those with anywhere between 409 and 1,245 cases) in the city. County investigators in Rockland County said most of their area’s cases are found in Spring Valley and Monsey, also home to large Orthodox Jewish communities.

Orthodox newspapers are filled with death notices, including some for leading rabbis of several chasidic movements. Deaths from the virus have overwhelmed one Brooklyn Orthodox funeral home, according to the Forward.

Monday, in a strongly worded rebuke, Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged municipalities to fine members of the Orthodox community and others for their flouting of social distancing rules.

In response to a reporter’s question about reports of heavily attended funerals and weddings in Rockland County and Brooklyn, Cuomo replied at his daily news briefing, “None of us has the right to be reckless in our own behavior, which compounds the problem we’re dealing with. Now is not the time to be playing Frisbee with your friends in the park. It’s just not. Now is not the time to go to a funeral with 200 people.”

The governor called on local governments to enforce the fines he has imposed for violating the state’s stay-at-home order. Cuomo said Monday he is doubling the maximum for such fines to $1,000.

In a strongly worded rebuke on Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged municipalities to fine members of the Orthodox community and others for their flouting of social distancing rules. Mike Groll/Office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo

“Yes, I understand grieving and I understand how the religious services can help with the grieving process, and I understand how it’s hard not to do that, but as a society, the risk is too great,” he said. “Enforce the law. The localities have the legal right and responsibility to enforce the law. My doing the penalty, raising the penalty, is my way of saying, ‘Do it. Just do your job.’”

On Sunday, Cuomo said that state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker had spoken with leaders of the chasidic Jewish community in Monsey to reiterate the need for social distancing. Last week Rockland County Executive Ed Day asked Cuomo to impose a containment zone around Rockland’s hardest-hit area, like the one that proved effective in New Rochelle.

The spread has also been marked among Israel’s charedi Orthodox, according to a recent report by The New York Times. Though charedim make up only 12 percent of Israel’s population, 40 to 60 percent of coronavirus patients at four major hospitals were from the community, according to the report, citing Israeli media.

Large charedi Orthodox communities were particularly vulnerable at the outset of the outbreak, with regular religious services, large families and large gatherings an essential part of their culture. The novel coronavirus also began spreading in the United States shortly before Purim, which began on March 8, at the beginning of widespread calls for school closures, crowd restrictions and stay-at-home orders. Packed readings of the Book of Esther and Purim parties were held around the region. It wasn’t until March 18, following a call from the White House, that 15 leading Orthodox rabbis in New York, including prominent chasidic leaders from Williamsburg, Kiryas Joel and Monsey, urged followers to shutter communal and educational institutions and adhere to social distancing protocols.

Still, there have been complaints from within and outside the community that religious services and other gatherings have continued unabated.

On March 30, nearly 100 attendees gathered near the Canadian border for the funeral of a member of the chasidic enclave of Kiryas Joel, an apparent Covid-19 victim, according to a source who was invited but declined to attend and asked to remain anonymous for fear of communal retribution. (Funeral attendees told the source about the large turnout.)

On Saturday, March 28, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, dozens of young men gathered in front of 770 Eastern Parkway, the global headquarters of the chasidic sect Chabad Lubavitch, according to a video shot by a passerby and distributed on social media. And on March 29, in the charedi enclave of Lakewood, N.J., nearly 50 people were discovered by police gathering outside a private home for a wedding.

Such reports have led to wide criticism of the charedim, especially on social media.    

But others contend that the community is being unfairly singled out for the transgressions of a few.

Bernie Gips, a coordinator for the Hatzolah ambulance service in Borough Park for nearly 46 years, said he is frustrated by the public perception that the charedi Orthodox community is not taking the coronavirus threat seriously.

“People think the Orthodox are not complying — it’s not so,” he said, detailing efforts his local Hatzolah chapter has made to spread word about the virus’ severity to those who don’t have internet access. Among those efforts was the distribution of leaflets doorstep to doorstep.

“The chasidic community are trying their best,” said Gips, speaking from his home, where he is self-quarantining. He estimated that “95 percent” of Orthodox institutions — from synagogues to kosher catering halls — are shut down at this point.

Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, the charedi Orthodox group, argued in the Forward that the calls for distancing measures “have been heeded by all but the tiniest minority of the community.”

As for Cuomo’s statement Monday, Shafran told The Jewish Week: “He was simply stating a truth, that such gatherings are wrong and endanger the gatherers and the larger public. The religious authorities have made clear that funerals have to be limited to a small handful of relatives.  People who try to flout that directive are wrong and should be stopped. While the grief of people is understandable, as is the desire to be part of a funeral, there is right and there is wrong. These days, large funerals are wrong.”

Making enemies 

Some say members of their community still haven’t gotten that message.

A local Chabad-Lubavitch businessman in Crown Heights who has been particularly vocal about enforcing social distancing said he has “made many enemies” because of his attempts to “shame people into staying home.” (He requested to remain anonymous for fear of further personal and professional retribution.)

“In the beginning, people downplayed the threat,” he explained. “Congregating, around holidays and Shabbos, is my community’s way of life. So we got hit harder.”

Over the past few weeks, in addition to recovering from Covid-19 himself, the business owner reported losing customers over his vocal efforts to shut down community gatherings.

“I made a simple calculation that saving even one life will make my efforts worth it,” he said.

Community insiders also say the demands for social distancing clash with other community norms, such as loyalty to religious ritual; a dearth of access to mainstream media; a steadfast belief that those engaged in religious activities will not be harmed; and a deep-rooted skepticism towards edicts imposed by authorities outside the community.

“If you’ve grown up to ignore the outside world, why would that change now?” said the source from within the Borough Park community who was invited to attend the large funeral that took place last week. “In the community, we’ve always adhered to our own set of rules.”

The source said a “culture of rigidness” motivates the continued gatherings. “It’s not that people are ignorant — this is our mode of survival,” the source said. “Once you start asking questions, there goes all of your direction.”

“In tight-knit Orthodox communities, there is a healthy dose of skepticism when orders come from the ‘authorities’ and not from within,” said Blima Marcus, a nurse practitioner at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and a member of Borough Park’s charedi Orthodox community. Marcus was particularly active in stemming the flow of misinformation that contributed to a measles outbreak among Orthodox communities across New York last winter.

Though the two epidemics are markedly different, Marcus said that the  Orthodox community’s limited access to popular media contribute to an underestimation and skepticism towards medical threats.

“For the ultra-Orthodox, there is no TV, no radio, no secular newspapers,” said Marcus, who is on the frontlines battling rapidly multiplying Covid-19 cases. “The enormity of what was happening globally was not a daily reality for most of the community. Without context, orders to stay at home in 2020 seemed farfetched.”

And even if most of New York’s charedi Orthodox communities are largely in compliance with social distancing guidelines at this point, their initial reluctance to act left their most vulnerable in harm’s way, according to a former employee at a group home for women in Borough Park. (The source asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional retribution.)

Despite her deep dedication to the group home’s clients, she said she quit her position there last week because of what she saw as the center’s failure to enforce quarantining protocols in a timely manner. (The center could not be reached for comment.)

“Now is too late, the house is already burning down,” said the former employee, referring to the disabled women she had worked with as “victims of their own community.”

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