(JTA) — The New York Board of Rabbis condemned sometimes violent protests over Covid-19 restrictions by Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn
The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York also reacted to the unrest by saying “no one should engage in violence, exploit the pandemic for political gain and/or spread malicious disinformation.”
JCRC-NY also expressed sympathy in a statement for the concerns of Orthodox community members, saying “we identify with the frustration of all those who wish to safely pray and follow the hallowed customs and practices of their faith.”
The umbrella groups were responding to a week of protests by charedi, or ultra-Orthodox, Jews in New York neighborhoods against measures the city and state are taking to contain the spread of the coronavirus. At one protest, crowds beat the brother of a well-known Orthodox businessman who had been outspoken about the need for masks and social distancing; at another, a charedi Orthodox reporter was beaten and accused of being a traitor to the community. On Tuesday, protesters in Borough Park burned masks.
The Board of Rabbis and the JRCY-NY each represent the range of Jewish denominations throughout the city, and their statements do no carry the same weight among charedi Orthodox and chasidic Jews as statements by their own leaders.
Nevertheless, the intense focus on the charedi neighborhoods has led to anguish across the Jewish community, over what some regard variously as reckless leadership by charedi leaders on coronavirus safety, an unfair focus on Jewish worshipers by the city and state, and the potential for an anti-Semitic backlash as a result of the issue.
Community leaders within the Orthodox community have also spoken out against the protests. “I’m ashamed of what happened,” said Dov Hikind, a former state assemblyman representing heavily Orthodox areas of Brooklyn.
More than 450 rabbis from across the religious spectrum signed on to a statement backing measures by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
The statement, organized by the New York Jewish Agenda, a liberal advocacy group, expressed its support for New York’s use of “data-driven, geographically-based efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.”
We are best protected when we follow the science and the data.
The reference to “data-driven” pushes back at claims that Cuomo and de Blasio are singling out charedi Jews with their most recent efforts to contain the spread of the virus. In April, the group organized a letter protesting what it said was de Blasio’s “scapegoating the Jewish community” with a series of tweets harshly criticizing the violating of social distancing guidelines at an Orthodox funeral in Brooklyn. This week’s statement emphasized that the current orders, spurred by a sharp uptick in infections, are not driven by bias.
“We condemn the lack of compliance with public health directives and recent violent reactions from some individuals within the Orthodox Jewish community to enforcement of those mandates,” the NYJA statement said.
NYJA organized an online press conference on Friday featuring rabbis from across the religious spectrum citing religious mandates to abide by the restrictions. Jacob Kornbluh, the Jewish Insider reporter targeted this week for violence at one of the protests, also took part.
Court Rejects Suit
Some of the most restrictive orders put in place this week by Cuomo are targeted at areas of New York City that have been especially hard hit by the virus, several of which are charedi strongholds.
On Thursday Agudath Israel of America, a charedi umbrella group, sued to stop the restrictions, in part because they coincide with Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, back-to-back holidays that begin this evening.
On Friday, Federal District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto refused to issue a temporary restraining order blocking Cuomo’s executive order, saying similar restrictions earlier in the pandemic demonstrated that the damage claimed by the suit was not “irreparable.”
“This ruling is disappointing, to say the least,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel, said in a statement “Of course we understand the importance of taking precautionary measures against COVID-19, but there are ways to do so without totally disrupting our ability to use our shuls. Looking ahead, we will continue to do all in our power to defend our constituents’ rights, while at the same time promoting all appropriate health protocols.”
Separately, a letter to Cuomo by a law firm representing a congregation in Monsey, New York, says that the distinctions Cuomo has drawn between “essential” and “non-essential” enterprises are “discredited” and unconstitutional. The letter, from Ronald Coleman on behalf of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg of Netzach Yisroel congregation, argues that Cuomo is not imposing similar restrictions on other “hotspot” areas and says there is no scientific justification for the regulations. The letter says that unless Cuomo withdraws the restrictions, the congregation will file suit.
In its statement, the 750-member Board of Rabbis said, “We cannot defend individuals in our Jewish community who demonstrate a blatant disregard for the COVID-19 health protocols and endanger their lives and those of other people,” the New York Post reported.
“We are also appalled by the shameful behavior of those who burn masks or beat people who protest their non-compliance,” the statement added.
Like the NYJA statement, JCRC-NY invoked scientific arguments for Covid safety, saying “we are best protected when we follow the science and the data. A vaccine is on the horizon which will lead us back to normalcy. Until then there will be painful demands placed on all of us.”