Inside Israel's ultra-Orthodox Coronavirus Hot Spots – Where Even the Mayor Is Sick

In Bnei Brak, the Hebrew sign says the synagogue is closed – but in Yiddish, worshippers are invited to ‘come in to learn and pray’

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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An ultra-Orthodox man in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea She'arim reading a coronavirus poster informing people how best to cough or sneeze, March 27, 2020.
An ultra-Orthodox man in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea She'arim reading a coronavirus poster informing people how best to cough or sneeze, March 27, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Outside one of the city’s hundreds of synagogues, the members were just beginning to arrive for minhah (afternoon prayers) on Shabbat afternoon. Despite the orders of both the government and the Chief Rabbinate, the place was still open. Bnei Brak’s rabbis follow their own rules.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 72

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Still, the gabbaim (officials) who run the place were half-confirming to the new social distancing regulations. They had prepared a pile of siddurim (prayer books) in the porch and dragged out chairs and stenders (small mobile lecterns for religious books), and the prayer was about to begin in leaf-dappled sunlight.

“We’re all abiding by the regulations here,” sighed one of the regulars. “We started praying outside already last night.” But the regulations had been in force for a week and a half. What took them so long? “When people began to die, we began to pay attention,” he answered.

He wouldn’t specify whether he meant the 12 Israelis who had already died from coronavirus-related causes, or the growing number of prominent members of the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) communities in the United States and Britain whose names and pictures had been emblazoned on the front pages of Friday’s Haredi newspapers.

You don’t notice initially that you’ve left the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan and entered Bnei Brak. There is no discernible border between the two municipalities, and the apartment blocks look very similar at first sight. If you are driving and it’s Shabbat, however, as you turn off Ramat Gan’s Haroe Street and make your way up Jerusalem Street, the fact you are entering Israel’s largest ultra-Orthodox city will immediately be brought home to you by the metal barrier that prevents vehicles entering from sundown Friday to nightfall Saturday.

The other thing you won’t immediately notice is that you are entering one of the biggest coronavirus hot spots in Israel.

Bnei Brak, with some 200,000 residents, is the ninth largest city in Israel. But as of this weekend, it had the second-largest number of coronavirus carriers – around 300. That’s 50 percent more than neighboring Tel Aviv-Jaffa, which has over twice the population. And the rate of infection is much higher as well. In just three days last week, the number of confirmed cases in Bnei Brak multiplied more than eightfold, while in neighboring Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv it just doubled.

As you enter Bnei Brak, you notice one of the reasons why the coronavirus has spread so quickly. The mobile phone stores proudly proclaim on their storefronts that they only sell devices with a kashrut stamp (just like the one more normally found on food). These stamps, authorized by the “Rabbis Council for Media Issues,” denote that the phones cannot be used for going online and block most messaging apps. In recent days, anyone with one of these phones who tested positive for COVID-19 would not have received the notification because the messages were blocked by their phones.

But a lack of communications was not the sole reason the ultra-Orthodox community was so slow to get the coronavirus message.

Further up Jerusalem Road is Yeshivat Tiferet Zion, a Torah academy for teenage boys, headed by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky. Two weeks earlier, as the government announced that all schools and universities were to be closed immediately, the 92-year-old rabbi – some say at the behest of his powerful grandson, Yanky Kaniesky – had publicly announced that the yeshivas and religious schools for all ages were to remain open as normal, since “Torah magna u’matzla” (“Torah protects and saves”).

A lot has happened since then, however, and early last week Kanievsky finally relented and ordered the religious educational establishments be closed. But in Bnei Brak and many other Haredi communities, the yeshiva buildings double as synagogues: Tiferet Zion’s students had been sent home, but the study hall-synagogue inside was still open on Shabbat.

The management had posted a sign on the door asking people not to pray inside, and instead suggested times and locations in nearby side streets for holding smaller, minyan-sized gatherings (the minimal quorum for prayer is 10 males aged 13 and above). But still people were going in and out. One of the yeshiva’s teachers said, “We’re abiding by the rules. Only leaving the house to pray in small groups.”

Why had Rabbi Kanievsky ruled otherwise two weeks earlier? The teacher shrugged and smiled. Some questions aren’t asked in Bnei Brak. A day later, on Sunday afternoon, Kanievsky finally issued a new order, this time telling people to pray on their own and not in a minyan.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews walking in Bnei Brak, during a coronavirus lockdown, on March 17, 2020.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews walking in Bnei Brak, during a coronavirus lockdown, on March 17, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Regulars only

For anyone who has ever walked through Bnei Brak on Shabbat, on its streets devoid of moving cars, the sight of the main thoroughfare – Rabbi Akiva Street – would have been a revelation this particular Shabbat. It wasn’t empty by any means, but it was nothing like the normally packed boulevard (so packed that rabbis patrol to try to keep groups of young men and women from fraternizing). Even so, there were still many dozens of people walking around, children scampering and young men standing in groups.

“We’re looking for a minyan,” was the excuse most of them made when asked what they were doing outside. “The police just came driving through and said nothing,” responded one.

The few playgrounds in this cramped city were still open, though only a small number of families were inside them. Outside one, an anonymous person had put up a little sign about hygiene, together with a box of surgical gloves and a canister of alcogel. Both were empty.

Bnei Brak Mayor Avraham Rubinstein, who does not do anything without the rabbis’ say-so, is himself in home quarantine with the coronavirus. On Friday, he issued a message to his residents that “this is a moment when you have to stop and shout and warn.”

Before Shabbat began, cars with loudspeakers had gone out into the streets, blaring instructions for residents to stay at home. But many in the city are grumbling that, only 10 days earlier, Rubinstein allowed a mass-wedding party of a relative of his to proceed on the streets. “He’s woken up now that he’s got it,” says one local.

The municipality has put up rather unobtrusive signs with advice on hygiene and an order preventing “gatherings of more than 10 people in one space,” but left it to the rabbis to rule on synagogues. Some rabbis have put out their own notices, calling to close the shuls and study halls, and pray outside, spaced out in small groups, But in Bnei Brak, there are as many rabbinical authorities as there are synagogues.

In a Hasidic part of the city, where every other rabbinical court has its own establishment, some are keeping to the rules. But others are making up their own. On the doors of the Biala Hasidim building, there are orders to split the prayers and Torah studies into three separate groups; not to kiss the Torah scrolls and mezuzahs; and for sick people and those over 70 to stay at home. A second notice beseeches the members not to gather in groups of more than 10, as they have already been fined by the Health Ministry for contravening the ruling. Another, smaller Hasidic sect made do with just putting up a notice stating: “This space is meant only for the regulars.”

Actually locking the doors of a synagogue was too much for most places. A few just put a symbolic stender in the entrance.

A neighboring establishment printed a notice saying in Hebrew that “By order of the Health Ministry, the study hall is closed...” This was followed by three lines in Yiddish saying “…according to the government. The study hall is open, come in to learn and pray.”

In other words, for those who obey the Hebrew-speaking secular government – we’re closed. But if you live in the alternate Yiddish-speaking ultra-Orthodox autonomy, things are different.

Blaming women

Perhaps the most crucial factor in the virus’ spread – beyond the lack of communications with the outside world and the rabbis’ suspicion of instructions from the government (despite the fact that the health minister, Yaakov Litzman, is himself ultra-Orthodox) – is Bnei Brak’s drastic overcrowding. Of Israel’s 77 cities, it is by far the most cramped, with an average of 26,368 residents per square kilometer. It is more than three times as crowded as nearby Tel Aviv, a city not exactly known for its spaciousness, and regularly features in lists of the world’s 10 most densely populated cities.

Bnei Brak is a city of tiny apartments in warren-like tenement blocks, each home housing families of often 10 or more. For the men and most of the children, life is outside on the street and home is the synagogue or yeshiva – especially at this time of year, when the women are busy cleaning every microscopic crumb of hametz from their homes and the men traditionally take the children out to playgrounds. With Passover less than two weeks away, keeping a Haredi family cooped up at home is as unthinkable as praying on your own.

The women, of course, were the first to lose their own spaces in Bnei Brak when the coronavirus crisis escalated. In all synagogues, the women’s galleries were reserved for the men, who needed to spread out. Here and there, though, a few women had their own spiritual benefit: On Shadal Street, chairs and stenders were spread out on Shabbat afternoon so a neighborhood rabbi could give his weekly lesson on the Zohar (a kabbalistic text). As he spoke, behind a parked car and hidden from his gaze, two women stood in rapt attention. A rare opportunity for them to listen in.

In other parts of the Haredi autonomy, women were actually being blamed for the coronavirus. On the walls in the hard-core Haredi neighborhoods of Mea She’arim and Beit Yisrael, someone had found time to put up a poster blaming the plague on “lack of modesty,” and exhorting “Women and Girls! Repent! Observe tznius [modesty] according to all the rules of halakha!” referring to Jewish religious law.

If anything, this part of Jerusalem is even more crowded than Bnei Brak and more resolute to keep out the outside world. In the Mea She’arim shtiblach (a synagogue with multiple prayer spaces in use simultaneously by separate minyans), no one is even trying to create a semblance of social distancing. As morning prayers proceed, all the rooms are packed with swaying men and children of all ages.

No one here will answer a journalist’s questions, but the notices on the door offer a full explanation. One is a quote from the writings of the Chatam Sofer, one of the most important rabbis of Central Europe in the early 19th century. “It is the blessed God’s will that in time of plague, the gathering of students for learning Torah must not cease and it will be the days leading to the coming of the Messiah.”

Another notice has a more contemporary message: “Communists! [This is apparently a reference to the Israeli government.] You didn’t close the camps of your impure army. You don’t care for the health of your soldiers, but you care for the health of Haredi Jewry?”

This is not just a way of life. It is the ideological battle of a community that will not have the government and its experts tell it how to fight a plague.

Police who tried to make their way into Mea She’arim last week to close down synagogues and yeshivas were rebuffed by angry crowds. This week, the police instead set up roadblocks around Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, to enforce the orders prohibiting unnecessary movement. But even if this can somehow prevent further infection spreading, once there are serious cases of sickness, the stricken will be allowed out for medical treatment.

As scarce ventilators and intensive care unit beds – which will be shared by secular and ultra-Orthodox patients alike – are being prepared for the expected surge of coronavirus cases, the anger across Israel is mounting at the community that insists on making its own rules.

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