In Israel's Coronavirus Crisis, ultra-Orthodox Torn Between Rabbis, Government Orders

In one yeshiva in southern Israel, studies continue as usual 'as long as we can,' despite measures intended to contain the coronavirus outbreak

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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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
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

The instruction of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the leaders of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, to continue studying in yeshivas and religious schools this week caught the ultra-Orthodox media off guard.

Many in the ultra-Orthodox public were confused in recent days by the contradicting orders of the rabbis to continue studies as usual, and the Health Ministry’s order to close all education institutions in the face of the coronavirus outbreak.

Meanwhile the community is preparing for another Sabbath in small numbers and in sterile prayer tents, at least on paper.

Despite Kanievsky’s latest instruction, the situation had altered drastically by Thursday. If until recently many obeyed him and continued their study routine, while trying to keep the ministry’s instructions, now, with the virus spreading rapidly in the ultra-Orthodox community – most yeshivas have closed their gates. However, a few remained open despite the outbreak.

In Tifrah yeshiva in the south, for example, studies continue as usual. “We’ll continue as long as we can,” a yeshiva official said, adding that they’re trying to adhere to the Health Ministry’s instructions.

Most ultra-Orthodox schools under Kanievsky’s authority have closed down as well. The ones that remained open did it in a completely different format.

A religious man walks past signs urging people to stay home at the Talpiot market in Haifa, March 19, 2020.
A religious man walks past signs urging people to stay home at the Talpiot market in Haifa, March 19, 2020. Credit: Rami Shllush

We opened the school today later than usual, in a much more reduced matter. Tomorrow it will "be closed already,” one school principal said.

The police checked up on ultra-Orthodox schools and on the mass prayer compounds to see how Kanievsky’s instruction was being implemented. After the police check, the compounds also changed their ways.

"There’s a reduction of at least 80 percent in the number of worshippers,” says Yitzhak Sheinin, manager of the Itzkovitch prayer compound in Bnei Brak. “People are very frightened, they keep away from me while talking to me,” says Sheinin.

He said he appointed a manager at the compound entrance to direct worshippers to the various prayer rooms, to avoid crowding. “We hardly have a wall without a poster with instructions and a warning,” he says.

The leaders of the Lithuanian faction quietly passed on an instruction in recent days to listen to the police and if they ask to close a school or institution to do so without confrontation.

Last night two of Israel’s largest yeshivas, Hebron and Ponivezh, decided to close down and send the students to Passover vacation early.

In the Sephardi and Hassidic communities, leaders have already ordered a week ago to close the yeshivas and elementary schools. Rabbi David Yosef, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s son, halted studies in the middle of the day in the Kollel he heads, and told the students to go home. “It’s a matter of life or death, we must listen to the Health Ministry’s instructions,” he said.

Kfar Chabad closed down synagogues toward the end of the week and set up 30 prayer tents, intended to accommodate 10 worshippers each. “At a meeting with the synagogue manager it was decided that prayers will be held only if the required distance is kept between people,” the notice to the residents said.

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