Coronavirus Cases Spike in Israeli ultra-Orthodox Neighborhoods

In Bnei Brak, an eightfold increase in coronavirus cases reported in three days

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walking past a nearly deserted Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 12.
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walking past a nearly deserted Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 12. Credit: AFP
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

Hundreds of new cases of the coronavirus appeared in ultra-Orthodox enclaves in Israel over a short period of time, internal Health Ministry figures obtained by Haaretz show, revealing a growth rate that far exceeds the national average.

These official Health Ministry figures, which are kept confidential, are given to the Interior Ministry which passes them on to the local authorities every morning.

The number of infected people in Bnei Brak increased eightfold between Monday and Thursday last week. On Monday evening there were 30 confirmed cases, and on Thursday the number was 244. In Jerusalem’s Haredi community there were 78 confirmed cases on Monday, and on Thursday – 314, a fourfold spike. In the Haredi town of Betar Ilit the number of people with the virus went from two on Monday to 24 on Thursday, and in Beit Shemesh, the number jumped from four to 34 in that period.

The virus is spreading faster in ultra-Orthodox communities than in the main secular cities. In Tel Aviv, the number of patients doubled in the same three-day period last week (85 on Monday and 191 on Thursday), as it did in Herzliya (from 18 to 39), Ramat Gan (20 to 42), Netanya (20 to 53) and Ashdod (24 to 51).

Bnei Brak Mayor Abraham Rubinstein released an urgent statement to residents on Friday: “There are moments when one must stop and simply cry out a warning. In Bnei Brak, unfortunately, there are 300 corona patients. This is a high rate of infection; it is the most dangerous anywhere in Israel, and the forecast is even more terrifying. This is the time to wake up! The rabbis of the city and its great teachers are crying out: Stop your know-it-all minyans of more than ten men,” he said, referring to the quorum required by Orthodox law to hold public prayers. “Keep your distance and stop storming the supermarkets. Just stay home and be careful. This is dangerous, it’s terrifying and you need to understand: It’s a matter of life and death,” Rubinstein said.

Sources in some ultra-Orthodox towns say the Health Ministry does not inform people that they need to go into isolation due to contact with someone who has the virus. Some also say that the Health Ministry is not cooperating with the local authorities that want to act independently to prevent the spread of the virus in Haredi neighborhoods, which are densely populated and hence a major potential source of infection.

The greatest obstacle is that many ultra-Orthodox people are not connected to mass media. About half of ultra-Orthodox people don’t have smart phones, but rather only phones that have been approved by their rabbis, which can’t receive a message instructing the user to go into isolation.

“Everything here is by word-of-mouth rumor,” a senior official in the ultra-Orthodox town of Modi’in Illit told Haaretz. “There’s no oversight. People decide for themselves whether to go into isolation or not… We have no direct connection to the Health Ministry. The little that we know comes from people we know and unofficial conversations.”

The official said the Health Ministry doesn’t have the manpower or “a way into the Haredi public.” Thus, information about confirmed patients reaches the community very late.

A senior official in a Haredi municipality said that his municipality asked the Health Ministry for information to start dealing with the matter on a city-wide basis, but the request was turned down. “At first we sat quietly because we were sure the Health Ministry was dealing with it. The messages we got from them were – it’s a medical event, don’t interfere, we’re handling it,” the official said. It was only three weeks ago, he added, that “we realized that in fact we were lagging two weeks or more behind the rest of the country. I don’t want to think what will happen here soon.”

Due to the lack of communication with the Health Ministry, the municipality of Modi’in Ilit has begun to take independent action. With the help of figures gathered from the media and from the Health Ministry’s website, they are providing information to residents. “Two weeks ago we started handing out flyers to people’s homes, an official said. “It was a page with an explanation about the coronavirus, letters from rabbis calling for people to follow the directives. They broadcast by loudspeakers in the streets. The problem is, there’s no organized information from the Health Ministry,” the man said.

The mayor of Beit Shemesh, Aliza Bloch, said her municipality is also acting independently. “We have to make sure that there is no one who doesn’t understand the seriousness. We’ve asked the Health Ministry for precise information in real time, so we can prevent infection,” she said.

Bloch has also spoken with rabbis in the city to ask them to close the synagogues. “On Friday there was somebody wandering around the streets with corona and thanks to the residents who informed us, the police tracked him down. It’s not only against the law, it’s mortal danger and I have zero tolerance in this matter,” Bloch said.

The Haredi community seems to have begun about a week ago to realize the seriousness of the epidemic. Most synagogues in ultra-Orthodox communities are closed and rabbis are asking their followers to obey all Health Ministry instructions. “Obedience in Bnei Brak is greater than any other city. The rabbis have issued clear directives and there is close cooperation with the authorities,” a person with knowledge of the situation in Bnei Brak said.

However, extreme sects in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea She’arim and in Beit Shemesh are adamant in their refusal to cooperate. This week members of the extreme sect Peleg Yerushalmi (“Jerusalem Faction”) held a large wedding in Modi’in Ilit in which many dozens of revelers were dancing hand in hand. In another incident, when three men in Modi’in Ilit were arrested for keeping their synagogue open, they cursed and threw objects at the police. The police also found two apartments in Beit Shemesh where children were attending classes. The owner was fined 5,000 shekels ($1,402) and the children were sent home.

At a recent meeting between the deputy director of the Health Ministry, Prof. Itamar Grotto, and the chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel, Haim Bibas, Grotto reportedly pledged greater cooperation between the ministry and local authorities and that starting today the ministry will keep municipalities better informed. The Health Ministry did not comment for this report.

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