Army Brass Spearheading Fight Against Coronavirus in ultra-Orthodox Town

With the infection rate in Bnai Brak soaring, the mayor brought in a former general and other military personnel to try to manage the crisis

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Soldiers patrolling Bnei Brak on Wednesday.
Soldiers patrolling Bnei Brak on Wednesday. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

As the number of coronavirus carriers in the largely ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak rises, the municipality has brought in two former army spokesmen and a general in the reserves to help manage the crisis. Sources in the municipality said their actions are meant to prevent a general lockdown of the city.

Former army spokesman Brig. Gen. (res.) Avi Benayahu said: “For a mayor alone this is difficult. This is a war and somebody not involved in local politics is needed, to tell him what to do.” According to Benayahu, other cities will adopt this model as well.

However, residents said they are angry that the municipality was late in its response and is now trying to generate good public relations in the eyes of the secular public.

The “war room” created in the municipality building is manned by IDF Home Front Command personnel as well as senior Israel Defense Forces officers in the reserves: Maj. Gen. Roni Numa, who is spearheading the fight against the coronavirus in the city, former IDF spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis and Benayahu. Over the past 24 hours they have helped move dozens of residents of the city to a small hotel in Moshav Nir Etzion, an Orthodox community in the Mount Carmel foothills and to a girls’ Orthodox high school that has been transformed into accommodations for people who are required to be in isolation.

According to the municipality there are 4,000 apartment buildings in Bnei Brak; the plan is for there to be a “building commander” for every one of them by Wednesday night, municipal officials said. The role of this person will be to report any problems in the building and if someone feels sick. “The goal is to create an organizational structure that will allow better command and control in the city,” Benayahu said.

A police officer enforcing social distancing regulations in Bnei Brak on Tuesday. Credit: Meged Gozani

Manelis’ role is to act as spokesman on the municipal WhatsApp groups and the non-smart mobile phones used by many of the ultra-Orthodox residents, transmitting instructions from the municipality and the Health Ministry. One important goal will be to get residents who are required to be in isolation to leave for one of the hotels rather than remain at home. Benayahu said he came into the position after Bnei Brak’s mayor, Avraham Rubinstein, requested last month that a retired IDF deputy chief of staff or chief of staff assist him. “This is an emergency. Numa has no political designs in the city, a kind of guest who makes order and maps out the needs,” Benayahu said. The two main activities of the municipality are to distribute food to the needy before Passover to peoples’ doors and, with the help of volunteers, to remove leavening that people have cleaned out of their homes according to tradition, and left outside their doors.

The funeral on Wednesday of Aliza Friedman, the wife of Rabbi Tzvi Friedman of the hardline Peleg Yerushamli sect, went smoothly and quietly – as opposed to a funeral Sunday night of Rabbi Tzvi Shekar, which was attended by hundreds – accompanied closely by the police and dozens of Border Police personnel. Normally such a funeral would draw tens of thousands of people into the streets; however, Numa, in coordination with the police and the family was able to limit the funeral party to a bus for the family and a large police contingent kept people away from the family’s house.

Some in the municipality continue to blame the state for the high number of coronavirus cases in Bnei Brak. “The crisis caught the state unprepared both logistically and in terms of explanatory measures,” said deputy Mayor Gedalia Ben-Shimon.

“Professors sat in [TV] studios who said that this was a flu with PR and a little panic,” he said, explaining that the seriousness of the situation “reached us late. There’s no shame in asking for help from good people and making order. This is a crisis that has to be faced and we’ll come out of it stronger. There are people who before last week hadn’t heard of the coronavirus because they’re deep in the world of Torah. The Health Ministry has to get into the thick of it, give us the names of the infected people and we’ll get them out respectfully and responsibly to the hotels. This way we’ll take care of them and all the residents of Bnei Brak,” he said, referring to a demand from several municipalities to provide them with the names of the infected people.

Some residents said the city should have been put on lockdown and as many people as possible put into isolation outside their homes. Over the past two days, police patrol cars have been stationed at the entrances to the city and police are asking everyone for identification.

“The management abilities of the city are normally low, and now they need unusual abilities. This is a city in an emergency, a city in a catastrophe,” journalist Yisrael Frey of the ultra-Orthodox media outlet Kav Itonut told Haaretz. “Macro skills are needed to make order, older people are shaking with fear, there has to be an organizational network to distribute food and provide serious oversight. After all, the Haredi community has incredible organizational skills based on charity. If they had had some sort of coordination between their abilities and management of the media crisis, that would have been great but in fact this is one big failure.”

Yaakov Weider, a city councilman representing Likud, which is in the opposition, said: “It was made clear to the municipality that if there was no one to take charge and manage this professionally, then the army would take over. Roni Numa is the mayor right now, he has received all the powers of the mayor. I’m in the opposition and I back him completely because the municipality wasn’t functioning. When this is over they’ll have to look into the failure of the municipal [political echelon] but now isn’t the time.”

“The mayor is a puppet of [Peleg Yerushalmi leader] Rabbi Kanievsky,” Y., who asked not to be named, told Haaretz. “All along the way they disregarded the directives. The rabbis told him what to do, but you can’t blame the rabbis. I blame the one who is at the top of the pyramid and that’s the mayor. It’s up to him whether he listens to the rabbis.” Y. described Mayor Rubinstein as “a good man, but suited to head a kollel,” referring to a kind of yeshiva. “You don’t take a yeshiva student and have him head a city of 200,000. The residents feel that they’ve lost control completely.”

A municipal official said the city did not have a spokesman for a year because they couldn’t decide what ultra-Orthodox group he should come from. “And so there were no explanations relayed to residents. They hired [outside] professionals because there were no professionals in the municipality. The mayor asked them to stop using the Health Ministry public address system because it was scaring the children. Technology in this community is very slow. This mayor is a representative of the great scholar of the generation Rabbi Kanievsky and if the rabbi says one thing, he can’t say the opposite. The mayor is not there because he’s talented but because of their political appointment,” the official said.

The Bnei Brak municipality said in response: “The coronavirus crisis is a national emergency. Bnei Brak as a city is densely populated and complex. The mayor, Rabbi Avraham Rubinstein, who is working day and night, decided to bring together the best possible professional forces... to [provide] the best outcome, led by him.”

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