The head of the Belz Hasidic sect, who told his followers not to follow Health Ministry regulations aiming to curb the spread of COVID-19, received exclusive treatment for the illness at home that was accompanied by senior doctors from Israel's leading hospitals.
A previous version of this article mistakenly reported that Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Karem, near Jerusalem, provided Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach with a doctor who managed his treatment while medical staff cared for him in shifts after he fell seriously ill two months ago. Additional information contradicting the initial report revealed that the Hadassah doctors only extensively advised the doctor who treated the rabbi and stayed at his bedside for eight days.
Hadassah director Prof. Zeev Rotstein and Hospital Director Prof. Yoram Weiss were regularly involved in the rabbi's treatment. According to sources familiar with the matter, Hadassah's emergency room was preparing for the rabbi's arrival in case his condition deteriorated.
Responding to a Haaretz inquiry prior to the publication of the initial report, the hospital did not deny the claims it presented, and only said that "Our staffs are treating any person who requires medical care in Hadassah. Each and every person gets the attention, professional care and is treated with devotion as if they were the only patient in Hadassah."
Shortly after the initial report had been published, Hadassah changed its version, claiming "The report is false from beginning to end… a Haaretz report taught us that the rabbi had a personal doctor during his illness, but it wasn't a Hadassah doctor, but rather a specialist doctor who the hospital knows nothing about."
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Rotstein told Haaretz that "the hospital goes out of its way to take care of each and every person in all circumstances," and that also included respecting their privacy.
Prof. Weiss and Firer declined to comment on the report.
Since the first coronavirus wave in Israel, the rabbi has ordered his followers to continue their daily routine, which included mass prayers and events in closed and crowded spaces, in violation of Health Ministry directives.
When the rabbi caught the virus two months ago and his condition worsened, his doctor consulted senior physicians from Hadassah and decided to admit him there. But some in the rabbi's inner circle decided at the last minute that he would be treated in his home, following a report on Israeli news website Ynet on an imminent evacuation to Hadassah's emergency room.
Rotstein and Weiss received daily updates about the rabbi's condition. Michal Firer, a businessman in the medical field with close ties to the rabbi and family members with many connections in Israel's medical field were also involved. "He got the VIP Trump treatment," one source said, "something the average citizen wouldn't receive."
A Hadassah source told Haaretz that the hospital outfitted the rabbi's home with all the necessary equipment and his bedroom was effectively turned into its own intensive care unit. According to the source, the rabbi was not put on a ventilator but only treated with an oxygen concentrator and medications. The source added that the rabbi, who suffers from underlying conditions, was closely monitored by Hadassah doctors.
The rabbi's condition was kept secret within the Belz Hasidic sect. Haaretz has learned that some followers across the country were given the order to pray for the rabbi, without being provided with any explanations.
For months, Belz institutions wanted to be seen as encouraging followers to respect the coronavirus guidelines, while recommending the opposite in practice.
The Belz court even issued a number of directives saying a mask should be worn and social distancing rules maintained. But the rabbi instructed his followers to continue going about their normal routine as they held mass prayers and events in crowded, indoor spaces without masks.
A recording of the rabbi leaked on October 11 featured an unprecedented attack on other ultra-Orthodox leaders for complying with the rules, slamming them for trying to please the government.
"The rabbis want to be in the favor of with the authorities and the authorities want to be in the favor of the rabbis," Rabbi Rokeach said. "This is not the solution. We have to behave as we have always done and Hashem will help so that no harm will come to us," he added, using the observant Jewish term for God.
In Kiryat Belz, the community's Jerusalem neighborhood, eight people have died so far from the virus. The neighborhood's coronavirus death rate of one in about 1,300 residents is the highest number per capita out of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem.