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, to avert the possibility they may infect family members and worsen the spread of the virus in their communities.
The plan was drawn up by Roni Numa, a reservist general in charge of fighting the pandemic in the Haredi community, in coordination with the Israeli army Home Front Command and the Health Ministry.
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The plan comes amid a sharp spike in infection in ultra-Orthodox communities. In Bnei Brak, home to many yeshivas, the number of coronavirus hospitalizations doubled in four days, and Jerusalem's Haredi neighborhoods have seen a 27 percent increase in hospitalizations. There are 100 coronavirus carriers per 10,000 residents in the Jerusalem's Haredi neighborhoods, as opposed to about 35 patients per 10,000 residents for general and mixed neighborhoods.
Tens of thousands of yeshiva students are expected to head home after Yom Kippur, ahead of the Sukkot festival 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.
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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.
Over 24 hours, as of Friday morning, 189 Jerusalem students tested positive for the coronavirus, 136 of them from Haredi schools.
“There are, in effect, two alternatives,” a knowledgeable 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 coronavirus quarantine centers, and the students will not go home.”
“It is clear to us this is not a 100 percent solution, but it’s a further step in screening,” the source said.
One of the focal points of the larger outbreaks in Jerusalem is in neighborhoods where members of the Gur Hasidic sect live, one of the groups that more strictly adheres to social distancing rules. Some 800 students out of 2,000 remain quarantined as a capsule in a compound since Rosh Hashanah. Of these, 520 have been tested for the coronavirus, and half have tested positive. Diagnosed patients were put in isolation at a Ger school in Tel Aviv, and the rest have remained in quarantine.
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.”
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.”