Analysis |

We Haredim Have Betrayed Our Values in Our Failed Response to COVID-19

As Haredi society is counting its dead, and Israel as a whole is sinking into a fierce crisis, with Haredi irresponsibility among the reasons, it must be asked: Where is our leadership?

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Police raid a Jerusalem yeshiva open against regulations, January 19, 2021.
Police raid a Jerusalem yeshiva open against regulations, January 19, 2021. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

On Saturday evening, a voice message was sent to a WhatsApp group chat of my former yeshiva classmates. I couldn’t listen to it. The brief message, just 79 seconds, was from Shmuel Yudelevich, a good friend from my yeshiva days. He comes from a well-known Jerusalem family, and is known for his strong, fearless personality.

This recording was a different Yudelevich. He was crying bitterly as he eulogized his wife Tzipora Fayge, all of 40 years old, who died three weeks after falling all with the coronavirus. In the background, his five children could be heard wailing.

The Yudelevich family is a victim of the ruthless coronavirus crisis that is tearing mercilessly through the ultra-Orthodox community. Statistically speaking the infection rate among Haredim is breaking records.

A quick glance at a map of infections in Israel shows a clear pattern: Ultra-Orthodox locales, as well as Arab communities, are leading in term of their infection rates.

Beitar Ilit has a 29% positive test rate; Immanuel’s positivity rate is 25%; in Elad it’s 24%; and Bnei Brak and Modi’in Ilit each has a positive rate of 20%. In comparison, the positivity rate in Tel Aviv is 4%, and Haifa it’s 6%.

The spread of the coronavirus through the ultra-Orthodox community stems partially from the living conditions, some of which are not by choice – the overcrowding and the poverty. But alongside that, you can’t ignore the fact that there’s been a clear, systematic and irresponsible violation of regulations mandating social distancing, which receives backing from wide swaths of the ultra-Orthodox leadership. Haredi institutions are open, massive weddings are taking place openly and synagogues and yeshivas have returned to operating normally.

For years I was proud to be Haredi. My black kippa symbolized not only my social affiliation but also made a statement about my values. The Haredi community, or so I believed, upheld the most right, most moral values.

Despite ban, ultra-Orthodox girls go to school in Jerusalem amid Israel's third lockdown, January 2021. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

There are plenty of reasons to criticize the Haredi community and its leaders, out of love and a desire for improvement, but I believed that even when they were erred, in most cases their intentions were good, motivated by a desire preserving the original spirit of Judaism.

The coronavirus pandemic entirely changed how the Haredi community will be perceived from now on. The shocking disregard for human life, the disobeying of “dina d’malkhuta dina” – the Jewish principle of obedience to the laws of the state, the endless calamities visited upon families with young children – that’s conduct with no moral justification: “V’nishmartem me’od l’nefshoteihem,” the biblical commandment to put human lives before almost anything else.

Haredi society lost its notable leaders over the past few decades, along with the ability to point appropriate, agreed-upon successors with the leadership skills needed right now. Ultra-Orthodox society’s notable leader right now is Yanki Kanievsky, the grandson of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the one taking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pleading phone calls.

The high rate of infection in Haredi society didn’t only mercilessly hit the community’s own members, and didn’t just strain Israel’s health care system. All Israelis residents are stuck again in a lockdown that is bringing economic disaster to hundreds of thousands of families, workers who were laid off and business owners who collapsed, and Israel’s budget deficit of 160 billion shekels ($49,255 billion) will weigh on the country for another 35 years, according to the Bank of Israel’s forecast.

Things could have been done differently. When different areas have different rates of infection, the most logical course of action that the public health professionals recommended was to focus different restrictions–- and primarily enforcement–- on the infection hot spots, while giving the rest of the country some breathing room.

And yet there’s zero expectation that the current political leadership will do that. Netanyahu is concerned with his own political survival and is sacrificing everyone else in Israel for that goal. Why start a conflict with the Haredim when he might need them in a few months to vote on his immunity from prosecution?

Ultra-Orthodox men burn a trashcan in a protest against the nationwide lockdown in Jerusalem. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

But the real disappointment is with the Haredi leadership. With the incidence of the coronavirus spiking in Haredi communities, it’s the rabbis who should have been the first to demand restrictions in the infection hot spots and not to hurt others needlessly.

The Mishnaic text of ethical teachings Pirkei Avot states, “Let the property of your fellow be as precious unto you as your own.”

If the ultra-Orthodox leadership were to adopt this motto, we would at least be seeing pashkevils – posters hung in a public space – calling on the public in giant letters to obey the coronavirus restrictions so as to avoid not only physical harm but also harm to public funds.

But there is no Haredi leadership, and fundamental values are gone, too. And no civil leadership has arisen in its stead.

Just imagine how much kiddush hashem – sanctification of the name of God through ethical conduct – there would be if influential figures in the Haredi community, such as the heads of charitable organizations or medical institutions, would create a united front and take responsibility for the community’s actions.

This isn’t happening. Haredi society is counting its dead, and Israel as a whole is sinking into a fierce crisis, among others due to Haredi irresponsibility. In times such as this, I am ashamed to be Haredi.

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