Tens of Thousands of Haredi Students Went to School Sunday, Violating Coronavirus Closure

Prominent rabbis relented later in an agreement with Netanyahu, after principals told the police that they had received orders from their rabbis to keep the institutions open, and were let off with a warning

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Mir Yeshiva, the world's largest yeshiva, Jerusalem, March 16, 2020.
Mir Yeshiva, the world's largest yeshiva, Jerusalem, March 16, 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) students went to school Sunday as usual, following the directive of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, leader of the non-Hasidic Haredi community, who ordered Talmud Torah schools to remain open despite the Health Ministry order to close.

Yeshivas and kollels (yeshivas for married students) also remained open, with students told to observe the Health Ministry instructions and rules of hygiene. However, it seems that most yeshivas did not observe the rules about limiting gatherings to 10 people or less, or about individuals keeping at least two meters from one another.

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Later Sunday night, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the spiritual leader of the United Torah Judaism party, and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the head of the Ponevezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak, agreed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's suggestion that Torah study will be conducted in groups of up to 10 students as part of the efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus. 

Several Talmud Torah schools were visited by policemen seeking to shut them down. Principals told the police that they had received orders from their rabbis to keep the institutions open, and the policemen let them off with a warning.

“There were patrol cars by us,” one Talmud Torah teacher said. “The principal said we had orders from above. They [the policemen] said that this was not yet criminal because the prime minister still had to sign the order, but then it would be criminal. They said, ‘When that happens, we will take the kids out and take you with us.’”

Another principal said, “Studies here are continuing as usual. Policemen came but they are allowing us to continue to study.”

So while the police were cracking down on businesses that were violating the assembly order and launching criminal investigations, they have yet to open an investigation against the administration of a Haredi school.

Police said they are trying to resolve the situation through dialogue without criminal enforcement. Senior commanders met Sunday with Kanievsky on the matter, but the meeting yielded no results. The police, however, are mapping out those Haredi schools that were operating normally.

The order that turns improper assemblies into criminal violations must be signed by Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov, not the prime minister. In Petah Tikva, Mayor Rami Greenberg had warned principals that he would take harsh measures against schools that opened and indeed, all the Talmud Torah schools were closed except for one. “We sent him a patrol car,” a municipal source said. “He told the policemen that there are orders from the rabbis, and they left.”

The source added that the other principals who closed their schools because of the mayor’s warning were very uncomfortable with the decision. “I understand that tomorrow they’re all going to reopen if the rabbis’ order stays in effect. Whoever knows Rabbi Kanievsky knows the decision will not change.”

Nevertheless, during the day the Or Yisrael yeshiva, one of the more prestigious yeshivas in Petah Tikva, closed on the instruction of Rabbi Edelstein. Haaretz has learned that Edelstein believed from the start that the Talmud Torah schools should be closed after consulting with doctors and other sources, from whom he understood that it was an issue of saving lives. However, after he learned of Kanievsky’s ruling, he decided not to issue his own.

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