For Communities – Jewish or Otherwise – Coronavirus Proves a Reckoning and an Opportunity

For Israelis, non-Haredi Jews in the Diaspora and the ultra-Orthodox’s non-Jewish neighbors, the coronavirus is a-once-in-a-lifetime moment of shared fate with the Haredi community

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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An ultra-Orthodox man walks past signs urging people to stay home at the Mea She'arim neighborhood in Jerusalem, March 18, 2020.
An ultra-Orthodox man walks past signs urging people to stay home at the Mea She'arim neighborhood in Jerusalem, March 18, 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The residents of Mea She’arim, in Jerusalem’s Haredi heartland, knew the voice even if they didn’t know his name. From the loudspeakers on the roof a brown sedan, wending its way through the narrow street, came the familiar strident sounds of a verse of prayer, in this case the bit from the Yom Kippur service exhorting the Almighty to prevent plague. This was followed by a proclamation in Hebrew, then in Yiddish. This is how news is spread fast in the hard core of ultra-Orthodoxy where the internet and even radio is prohibited.

Only this time, instead of calling on the faithful to attend a funeral or demonstration against the heretical Zionist authorities, the voice of Menachem Tzin, who for want of a better title is a professional town crier for this part of town, was actually working for the Zionist authorities, trying to instruct listeners on how to stay safe and not endanger others as the coronavirus pandemic spreads. Specifically, he was working for the Health Ministry, which is anxious to warn the parts of the Israeli public that are somewhat less attuned to wider society.

There was something jarring in Tzin’s voice, which often proclaims religious slogans lambasting the state, now crying out on its behalf. And something reassuring as well.

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This week, much attention was paid in the Israeli media to the many instances where Haredi citizens disregarded the public-health and social-distancing instructions. The rest of the country went into lockdown, but many ultra-Orthodox schools and Torah academies continued to function, more or less as usual. Large weddings and gatherings were held as planned and synagogues remained open. Cue the regular anger of secular people about the parasitical Haredim who couldn’t care less about the rest of us. Much of this anger is justified, but there’s another side to this.

For nearly 70 years, these bubbles of Haredi autonomy have been created, cultivated and even financed by state – in Israel and the United States as well. Whatever you may think of these closed-off communities, they’ve existed nearby for our entire lifetimes and most of us have rarely paid them any attention. Now they’re in danger, just as we are, and if they don’t enforce the necessary regulations and instead let the virus spread among them, they can endanger others and put an extra burden on the already strained health services.

The rabbis rally

For Israelis, non-Haredi Jews in the Diaspora and their non-Jewish neighbors, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment of shared fate with the ultra-Orthodox community, and by and large, the Haredim are beginning to understand that as well.

More and more senior rabbis are beginning to cooperate with the medical authorities, announce the closure of educational institutions and restrict attendance in shuls. It may be a case of too little, too late, but there is a growing understanding that the Haredim can no longer shut out the world. Some rabbis have already allowed the 10-man quorum for prayer to be held by cellphone and are coming up with increasingly inventive ways to let people in quarantine and awaiting confirmation of infection be online on Shabbat.

Jewish ultra-Orthodox girls wear face masks during celebrations of the Jewish festival of Purim in Bnei Brak, Israel, March 10, 2020.Credit: Oded Balilty / AP

Meanwhile, on social media, the anger is increasingly open – of the kind I’ve never seen in all my years of observing the community – from regular ultra-Orthodox men and women at the venerable rabbis who have not imposed any restrictions.

Prof. Menachem Friedman, who laid the foundations for the academic study of the ultra-Orthodox community, died this week at 84. He wrote in his seminal work “The Haredi Ultra-Orthodox Society: Sources Trends and Processes” that the “society of learners” – or the Haredi community as it is today – came about only in the mid-1950s, partly in an attempt to rebuild the lost world of the east European shtetls and yeshivas obliterated in the Holocaust.

But as Friedman wrote, this development happened mainly because the “society of learners” could only exist, ironically, in democratic societies with a social safety net like Israel and the United States, where its members could live off government handouts while leading a life of Torah study and maintaining their separation from the outside world. Now the world has come knocking on their doors, with unforeseen results.

The Arab community

The pandemic is just beginning and for many of us, religious and secular, there are many difficult new realities to get used to for who knows how long. For Israelis it’s strange to be in a national emergency, which we’re quite use to, that’s not a war. Coupled with the political crisis and dramatic erosion of Israeli democracy, this will hopefully make many Jewish Israelis see their fellow Arab citizens, many of whom are on the front line as doctors, nurses and other medical staff, in a different light.

It’s no coincidence that Benjamin Netanyahu and his proxies have found time and resources this week, of all times, to ramp up their incitement against the politicians representing Arab Israelis. If the majority of Israelis begin to see Arabs as equal citizens, they may actually realize that they can be part of a government as well.

It’s a bewildering moment for all communities as the structures, both physical and personal, that normally allow them to keep together are suddenly forced to close indefinitely. At one go we’re forced to recognize that we’re part of one seething mass of humanity in which the virus doesn’t differentiate between faith, race and gender. And at the same time, we are sent home, forced to spend interminable hours within our most compact and intimate units, our immediate families.

The understanding that we can no longer just protect our own families and communities, or even nations, while disregarding the welfare of the wider world will hopefully change perspectives when this is all over – in everything from foreign policy to protection of the environment. Britain’s Orthodox chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, was tone perfect on this earlier this week when he ended his announcement that shuls across Britain would be closing down. He used the Reform-sounding universalist blessing “May our Merciful Father in Heaven shower his mercy upon all of human kind.”

Many of us this week have had to change our plans for seder night on April 8. Grandparents who used to conduct mass seders with dozens of descendants are contemplating having to do so this year on their own.

Parents of my generation have suddenly realized that we will be leading a seder for the first time in our lives, and have started to work out what this means in terms of which of our children will be present at all. We’re mulling how we even start injecting some meaning into an annual ceremony that we routinely treated with cynical disdain when our parents were in charge.

The virus has broken down our convenient frameworks, as well as the borders around us, and rearranged us in new international and individual patterns we will struggle to become accustomed to. It’s not just the ultra-Orthodox, we’re all now being segregated into global isolation. God help us.

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