260 Israeli Yeshiva Students Test Positive for Virus, Stoking Fears of Wider Outbreak

New cases were among 2,000 students who slept in same building for Rosh Hashanah prayers ■ 1,200 others who attended prayers have returned home

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A yeshiva in Jerusalem, September 2020.
A yeshiva in Jerusalem, September 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Hundreds of yeshiva students were found to be infected with the coronavirus after hundreds more of their peers returned home to their families, it emerged on Friday.

This comes as coronavirus infections in Israel hit another record high on Saturday.

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There were 9,201 new diagnoses on Saturday, bringing the number of active cases to 68,122 people who are currently sick, and a total 227,100 who tested positive since the outbreak began.

There are now 200 people on ventilators, while the death toll has reached 1,441.

A full 260 yeshiva students who prayed at the Ger Hasidim’s study hall on Rosh Hashanah were found Friday to be infected with the coronavirus.

An additional 1,200 students who attended those prayers returned home at the end of the holiday, raising concerns that they too were infected and are now infecting others.

All these students were part of a group of 2,000 students who prayed, ate and slept in the same building in Jerusalem, according to a plan prepared especially for the Ger Hasdim.

A source familiar with the situation told Haaretz that the Health Ministry had approved the special prayer plan before the cabinet decided on a full lockdown. When this was imposed, the ministry retracted its approval.

Professionals at the ministry had said that during the prayers there would be a massive spread of infection. Despite the canceled approval, prayers continued unhindered.

The Ger Hasidim are meticulously following guidelines intended to prevent contagion. Students who wished to pray alongside their spiritual leader, Yaakov Aryeh Alter, did not leave their yeshiva during the three weeks preceding the holiday, studying in capsules of 25 people.

Before being allowed to go to Jerusalem, the students underwent two coronavirus tests. The plan that was initially approved determined that they could not leave the study hall, returning home only after Yom Kippur.

But 1,200 returned home across Israel. This is believed to be due to the sleeping arrangements at the study hall, and because the air conditioning there was not working properly.

Some 800 students remained behind, and some of them started showing coronavirus symptoms. A full 520 of them underwent tests, with half found to be infected.

They were sent into quarantine at the group’s Tel Aviv yeshiva, with the rest of the students remaining in isolation in Jerusalem. The Health Ministry said it intends to test all the students who were at the study hall.

The Ger Hasidim realize that there is a high chance that the 1,200 students who returned home after Rosh Hashanah will infect many others, and attempts are underway to hold an extensive investigation to find the source of infection.

According to sources in this group, there were students who were not part of the capsule effort and had not stayed for the three weeks preceding the holiday strictly at their yeshiva. But they managed to slip into the study hall during the prayers.

Meanwhile, by Friday morning, the number of hospitalizations from Bnei Brak and Jerusalem’s Haredi neighborhoods had doubled to 44 from 22 four days earlier.

In Jerusalem alone the number jumped from 51 to 65 in that period, a 27 percent increase. As of Friday morning, Haredi hospitalizations made up 41 percent of all hospitalizations in the city, which stood at 158, with 50 of these patients in serious condition.

The numbers in Jerusalem have been worrisome. As of Friday, 54 percent of patients were from Haredi – ultra-Orthodox – neighborhoods, with 10 percent from East Jerusalem.

The number of people testing positive in the previous day broke records Friday, reaching 21 percent compared with 14 percent in the previous two weeks.

For the first time, the number of active patients in Jerusalem hit 100 per 10,000 residents. In mixed areas the figure stood at 50, also a record. East Jerusalem recorded a decline to 35 per 10,000 residents.

The number of students testing positive was 189 in the previous day, 136 of them from Haredi schools, 46 from state schools and seven from Arab schools.

Rabbis and Haredi representatives have not ignored the tough statistics. In Tel Aviv suburb Bnei Brak they realize that the figures may just be the tip of the iceberg; they have thus launched an ambitious campaign called “have we not had a hand in spilling this blood?”

The city has posted notices and sent recorded messages to residents warning that the data show that one in 10 COVID-19 patients above age 70 die of the disease.

“We must be careful,” the notices say. “We must keep an extra vigilant watch over our parents. Let’s not be the ones who shout after the fact about how we might have been more cautious and tried harder to save their lives.”

Israel plans to test thousands of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students for the coronavirus before allowing them to head home for the Sukkot holiday next weekend. The goal is for them not to infect family members and worsen the spread of the virus.

The plan was drawn up by Roni Numa, a reservist general in charge of fighting the pandemic in the Haredi community. Numa acted in coordination with the Home Front Command and the Health Ministry.

A yeshiva in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood, September 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Students who test negative will be allowed to go home, while yeshivas found to have a high number of virus cases will be turned into quarantine centers.

Tens of thousands of yeshiva students are expected to head home after Yom Kippur, ahead of Sukkot, which begins a few days later. The students had been immersed in intensive study during the pre-Rosh Hashanah month of Elul, and are headed for a three-week break.

But yeshiva heads and rabbis are concerned that these students could be carriers of the virus and may spread it to their families, which could worsen the spread of coronavirus in already highly infected communities.

The data show that about 5,000 yeshiva students have been infected with the virus during the month of Elul study period. Of these, 3,000 have since recovered and about 1,000 are expected to recover by the end of Yom Kippur on Monday night.

Thousands of these students will be tested at the yeshivas where coronavirus infections are suspected to be running high, and those who are found to be ill will not be permitted to return home.

“There are in effect two alternatives,” one source told Haaretz. “Some will be sent to quarantine hotels, and the yeshivas with a large number of infected people – more than 100 or about 30 percent of the student body – will be turned into corona quarantine centers, and the students will not go home.”

He added: “It’s clear to us this is not a 100 percent solution, but it’s a further step in screening.”

So far, 14 yeshivas have been shut or converted into coronavirus quarantine centers, most of which were opened this year as part of the capsule program. The source said that “yeshiva heads brought in security guards and are not permitting anyone to leave the yeshivas, and this is being monitored by us and the Home Front Command.”

On Saturday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged that the government allowed event halls and schools to open prematurely following the first wave of virus infections in the spring.

“Our decision to open banquet halls was premature. Perhaps also the decision to reopen all schools,” he said, but also censured his detractors. “The populist decisions in the Knesset to annul all of the restrictions we imposed, the government, after we saw the morbidity rate go up – completely wrong.”

Netanyahu asked viewers to avoid synagogues over Yom Kippur this year, “as the rabbis requested.”

He acknowledges there are yeshivas that did not meet the conditions to control the spread of the virus “and got clobbered on the head,” as he put it. In addition, there are yeshivas that adhered to the capsule rules, but despite that are seeing outbreaks.

“It was the maximum effort that could be made from the standpoint of the Haredi rabbis, continuing on as normal and from a health standpoint, since those diagnosed with the illness are not on the streets and we know where they are,” the source said.

“The worst thing that could have happened is a situation where these people would be out on the street, not in school, and they go home and infect their entire family.”

Students at yeshivas where the virus has been kept at bay such as the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem and the “Mir Birkfeld” yeshiva in Modi’in Ilit, as well as yeshivas that curbed an outbreak without any widespread infection, will be permitted to return home without being tested.

About two weeks ago, ultra-Orthodox leaders published an unusual letter calling on students not to get infected with the coronavirus. The letter was published against the backdrop of students who sought to deliberately contract the virus so as to get through it during a routine period, sometimes with the silent consent of yeshiva heads.

“In the name of our leading rabbis, we are cautioning about the need to take care of yourself physically and mentally, while at the same time continuing to rise up spiritually. Everyone must be careful not to be infected or infect anyone else with an illness,” the rabbis wrote. “It is forbidden for anybody to harm himself or his friend and there is no form of consent for this.”

The rabbis said experts in the field said “we have noticed unfortunately that many young people who have fallen ill, even after recovery, don’t return to the best of health and this affects every aspect of life, including concentration and adherence to study of the holy Torah.”

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