After a long summer of lockdowns and quarantines, it was starting to look as if America’s liberal states and cities had flattened the curve of COVID-19 (even as the virus continues to ravage red states). But as the seasons turn and the weather gets colder, cases are surging in areas where it was once under control.
New York is a case in point. The test positivity rate, which was holding steady at or below 1% all summer, is rising again – but it’s not evenly distributed. There are hot spots that are doing far worse than surrounding communities. If you look at the worst-affected zip codes, there’s a striking pattern: many of the biggest outbreaks are happening in enclaves of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
For instance, in Orange County in the Hudson Valley region, the Hasidic town of Kiryas Joel had to shut down schools again after recording a positivity rate of 27.6% (!!). The same thing is happening in Brooklyn, where ultra-Orthodox communities are having indoor services and crowded festivals in complete disregard of the virus:
One such incident appears to have been a Simhat Beit Hashoeiva celebration staged Monday night in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, with hundreds of Chabad Hassidim taking part in the traditional Sukkot celebration.
In footage uploaded to YouTube, hundreds of men can be seen dancing in close quarters, hugging and singing through the night.
In a separate incident in Borough Park – also in Brooklyn – the Skulen Hassidic community also held a Simhat Beit Hashoeiva celebration with footage showing dozens, if not hundreds of hassidim inside a sukkah, dancing in close quarters without masks. (source)
Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox congregants attended an indoor prayer service in Borough Park on Friday in open defiance of Governor Andrew Cuomo newly imposed restrictions on religious gatherings in COVID hotspots. The service was led by a prominent rabbi who tested positive for coronavirus one week ago, multiple sources told Gothamist.
As cases surge, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered new lockdowns in the hot spots, closing schools and nonessential businesses and limiting capacity at religious services. The ultra-Orthodox responded with outbursts of fury and defiance.
At an anti-lockdown protest in Brooklyn last week, a Haredi mob burned face masks in the street. The protest soon turned violent, as a fellow Jewish man was assaulted and badly beaten by the protesters because his brother had called for compliance with health rules:
The protestors set fire to a pile of masks, at one point surrounded a city bus that was moving through the area and at another ran a reporter out of the area.
In a particularly violent episode, one man — the brother of Mordy Getz, a well-known Orthodox businessman who was outspoken about the need for masks and social distancing earlier in the pandemic — was beaten so severely by protesters after he took a video of the scene that he was taken to the hospital. Onlookers could be heard calling him a “moser,” one who informs on fellow Jews to the authorities and who some Jewish legal authorities say can be killed as a result, an insult applied to his brother back in April, as he was placed on a stretcher to be taken to the hospital.
One of the ringleaders of these protests is a Trumpian provocateur named Heshy Tischler. At the height of the pandemic, he filmed himself cutting the locks off closed city playgrounds. Since then, he’s been busy spreading virus denialism and conspiracy theories, disrupting press conferences to heckle doctors, and rejecting the government’s authority over him and his fellow believers:
Into the void stepped Tischler, telling his followers that the city’s case numbers were spurious (“Their testing results are lies!” he said Wednesday); posting video of himself from a large outdoor wedding even after those very gatherings were blamed for rising COVID cases in August; and vowing not to let Cuomo crack down on Borough Park. “You’re not coming into my neighborhood, we’re going to do whatever we want,” Tischler said to Cuomo in the wedding video, guests mingling and violin music in the background.
At that same protest, he allegedly incited a mob to violence against a reporter, Jacob Kornbluh, himself an Orthodox Jew, who reported unfavorably on Tischler’s activities in the past:
An Orthodox reporter said he was attacked by an angry mob at a protest in Borough Park, Brooklyn, against coronavirus restrictions Wednesday night.
The reporter, Jacob Kornbluh, said protesters yelled that he was a “Nazi” and “Hitler” as they chased after him during a second night of unrest over government attempts to stop the surging cases of COVID-19 across a broad swath of Brooklyn.
… “I was just brutally assaulted, hit in the head, and kicked at by an angry crowd of hundreds of community members of the Boro Park protest — while yelling at me “Nazi” and “Hitler” — after Heshy Tischler recognized me and ordered the crowd to chase me down the street,” Kornbluh tweeted.
(Happily, Tischler was later arrested on charges of inciting a riot.)
When the pandemic was just getting started, back in March, I wrote about religions that were helping to spread the pandemic. The Ultra-Orthodox were and are the chief example.
Part of the reason is that they tend to have large families and to live in close quarters, where a contagious virus can spread like wildfire. But a larger part is that they have an attitude of distrust verging on paranoia toward science, modernity and the secular world. They disdain any authority other than their own ultra-conservative rabbis, and they view any restriction on the practice of their religion – even one justified by the necessity of stopping a deadly disease – to be an intolerable infringement on their rights.
They begin with this conclusion and reason backwards to decide that the virus must not exist or must not be a threat, and that claims to the contrary must be lies concocted by anti-Semites to oppress and persecute them. Their leaders are going so far as to urge people not to get tested so the state has no justification to reimpose lockdowns.
This motivated reasoning doesn’t just exact a toll on them (although it does; huge numbers of Haredim have died from COVID-19), but it puts everyone at risk, since the virus won’t stay confined to ultra-Orthodox communities but will inevitably spread into the general population.
Blimi Marcus, a nurse practitioner from the ultra-Orthodox community, despairs that her fellow believers are treating vital public-health measures as an attack on their religious freedom:
Now with our cases rising and the Gov taking a strong stance, our leadership fomented theories on persecution, antisemitism, freedom of religion, and more.
The culmination of all of these inappropriate responses? Shameful protests, injuries, rampant chillul Hashem.
— Blimi Marcus (@MarcusBlimi) October 7, 2020
(NB: “chillul Hashem” means “desecrating the name of God” and is a Hebrew term for Jews who act badly in the presence of others and bring disrepute on their religion.)
While most Jewish people are doing the right thing, it’s no coincidence that denialism has taken root in ultra-Orthodox communities that shun education and the modern world. As it so often does, their fundamentalism makes them feel justified in demanding an exemption from the rules and moral norms that apply to everyone. If they themselves were the only ones who’d reap the consequences, that would be one thing, but innocent people will suffer and die because of their recalcitrance.