After Lull, Israel's ultra-Orthodox Again Hit With High Infection Rates

Ultra-Orthodox cities see rapid rise in new cases, with health official in Bnei Brak saying the arrival of vaccine doses has contributed to complacency

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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People cross a street in Bnei Brak, December 20, 2020.
People cross a street in Bnei Brak, December 20, 2020.Credit: Hadas Forush
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

During both the first and second waves of the coronavirus pandemic, the ultra-Orthodox community had a higher rate of confirmed cases and deaths than the population at large. For some six weeks, however, this community was actually presenting the lowest rate of morbidity in the country. Haredi cities remained “green” for long periods and some started to believe that the community, in addition to observing the social distancing rules, had reached some level of herd immunity.

But all that is changing, and rapidly. Since Sunday the cities of Bnei Brak, Betar Illit, Elad and the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof have become red zones – areas with high levels of infection. For example, the average daily number of new cases in Bnei Brak two weeks ago was 10, but in recent days it’s been 100.

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In the Haredi neighborhoods of Jerusalem where the average number of new daily cases was 20, there are now nearly 200 a day. The weekly ratio of positive tests in those neighborhoods, which three weeks ago was around 3 percent, has reached 12 percent. In Bnei Brak the ratio of positive tests two weeks ago was 3 percent; now it is 10 percent.

There has also been a significant rise in the number of hospitalizations and deaths. In the Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem there had been no coronavirus-related deaths for several weeks and only three people had been hospitalized. But over the past three days there have been five deaths and the number of hospitalized shot up to 25. In Bnei Brak, which had only one resident in the hospital two weeks ago, the number is now eight.

Moshe Morgenstern, who holds the health portfolio for the Bnei Brak municipality, told Haaretz that the city realizes that this new wave will probably be much worse than the previous two. “The infection coefficient (average number of people each carrier infects) here is two. We never had that during the two previous waves,” he said. “If this continues this way we will have an enormous number of sick people here in a few days.”

Morgenstern says the fact that the city had been “green” for a long period, even after the third wave had begun in other parts of the country, made residents complacent. “The fact that there’s a vaccine has also led people to think that there’s no more coronavirus and people were less careful,” he said. “We see fewer people wearing masks, and weddings, which had previously been limited, have become much bigger. In addition, Hanukkah parties and mass gatherings led to the launching of the third wave.”

Despite the worrisome statistics, Haredi schools are continuing to operate almost normally. According to the data from Jerusalem, it seems a large number of infections are stemming from there, particularly from the Haredi girls’ high schools, which resumed classes around a month ago, and the yeshivas for high-school-age boys, which had opened even earlier. Nearly 40 percent of the confirmed cases among Haredim are among students, while those sick students (568) account for more than half of all the sick students in Jerusalem (988).

The Health Ministry is now making an intensive effort to persuade the Haredi community to get vaccinated. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, leader of the non-Hasidic Haredim, was video-taped declaring that the vaccine was not an option but a requirement, and there was nothing to fear from it. The Rebbe of Gur, who throughout the pandemic had demanded strict observance of the social distancing rules, was vaccinated on Sunday. Even MK Yisrael Eichler, a representative of the Belz Hasidic court, who had been critical of many of the coronavirus guidelines, got vaccinated.

Still, many in the community are hesitant. “One of every five adults I’ve spoke to recently told me that they weren’t planning to be vaccinated at this stage,” a Haredi lawyer told Haaretz. “They are still afraid.”

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