Leading Israeli Rabbi Okays Opening More ultra-Orthodox Schools During Lockdown

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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A Talmud Torah, or elementary religious school, open in violation of COVID regulations, Jerusalem, October 2020.
A Talmud Torah, or elementary religious school, open in violation of COVID regulations, Jerusalem, October 2020. Credit: Emil Salman
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

The leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, has approved the reopening of religious elementary schools, also known as Talmud Torah schools, beginning Sunday despite a spike in coronavirus infection rates in the community and a nationwide lockdown.

In recent days, sources close to Kanievsky told the Health Ministry that if a plan for opening the Talmud Torah schools is not agreed upon, the rabbi would approve their reopening.

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Despite the order, Kanievsky has reportedly instructed schools not to open if it will cause a direct confrontation with police. According to several sources, several administrators of educational institutions in the community are hesitant to open the Talmud Torah schools despite Kanievsky's approval.

The message from Kanievsky's associates comes as tensions run high, sparked off by recently ramped up law enforcement in the general ultra-Orthodox community. In recent days, Israel Police have entered areas where extremist Haredi sect members live, after months of steering clear, even as many have openly defied lockdown restrictions to hold religious gatherings, weddings and funerals, as well as opening schools.

Violence erupted overnight when several people belonging to extreme ultra-Orthodox factions attacked police officers who arrived in Bnei Brak to disperse a gathering held in violation of COVID-19 restrictions. Video footage shows rioters pushing and beating officers, and later pelting a police vehicle with stones, smashing its windows and chasing it, while the officers were inside. Six were arrested in the clashes that broke out, and multiple cases of police violence were reported.   

Spiritual health

A source from the ultra-Orthodox community who is familiar with the details of the issue said, "The rabbi is familiar with the data regarding the infection rates, but expressed deep pain that the Talmud Torah schools are closed. The rabbi authorized them to open only if it will not cause clashes with the police. You won't see that among us."

The source added that Kanivesky said "the abolition of the children's Torah endangers the citizens of the country," and believes that the high rates of infection in the ultra-Orthodox community stem from the spiritual consequences of closing the educational institutions.

Another source explained that remote studies are impractical for ultra-Orthodox families and lamented that "incitement (against us) persists, even though most of the Talmud Torah in the Lithuanian community remain closed," and "we're not seeing a decrease in infection rates among the institutions that closed."

The schools can continue to be closed “for a day or two days at the most, but not more than that. The Health Ministry... understands this,” the source said, explaining that  "families blessed with many children, who don’t have the option to study through Zoom and in practice can’t maintain routine studies (like this).” The source added “there’s no doubt that pressure is being exerted by principals as well as parents."

Lockdown enforcement efforts in Beit Shemesh, July 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

This week, the official heading up the fight against the coronavirus in the Haredi community, Roni Noma, expressed concern that Haredi institutions would open if the lockdown were extended and that already this week, many more institutions had opened. "We need to stop this in time if we don't want there to be more openings next week."

Although the Haredi non-Hasidic Lithuanian community has been in the limelight, in the Hasidic community – which constitutes half of the Haredi-Ashkenazi community – a significant number of religious schools for elementary school children have already opened. In the Hasidic community, there is no corollary for Rabbi Kanievsky; in lieu of a single leader are the heads of small Hasidic factions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu communicated with these leaders when the current lockdown began in an attempt to convince them to comply with the guidelines. It is unclear whether those attempts are ongoing.

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