Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students returned to their families on Monday night after Yom Kippur, having been secluded for weeks at their yeshivas – but many went home without proof that they were not infected with COVID-19, Haaretz has been told.
The yeshiva students, who range in age from 13 and up, returned home for their traditional annual three-week vacation from yeshivas that in large measure have not strictly adhered to confining their students to small group “pods” to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The incidence of COVID-19 in the ultra-Orthodox community has been disproportionately high and the government’s ability to enforce regulations limiting the spread of the virus at yeshivas has been very limited, prompting concern that the students’ return to their families on Monday night would lead to massive coronavirus outbreaks.
A plan was developed that called for about 30,000 yeshiva students to begin the school year in late August upon presentation of proof that they had tested negative for the virus – and not to leave the yeshiva until just after Yom Kippur. The plan required that the students take a second coronavirus test before returning home to show that they remained negative for the virus. Any student who tested positive was to stay at their yeshiva.
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In practice, however, many students who tested positive, or were not tested at all, have gone home in any event, a source involved in yeshiva education told Haaretz. The students are scheduled to return to school on October 19.
Between last month and Wednesday of last week, more than 5,000 cases of the coronavirus were diagnosed at Israeli yeshivas that committed to the plan to combat the pandemic. The plan was worked about between rabbis in the community and Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa, who is responsible for the government’s response to the pandemic in the ultra-Orthodox community.
Many yeshivas have not strictly enforced the plan, and during the first several weeks of school many students have left the premises of their yeshivas and returned to them. There are also roughly 30,000 other students attending yeshivas that are not participating in the plan and which have not been subject to any oversight.
Yeshivas with a large number of students infected with the coronavirus have been converted into hostels for COVID-19 patients over the past month and have also received large numbers of other patients, who remain there until they recover. A number of other yeshivas have gone through the first month of the school year without any coronavirus cases, however – including the prestigious Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem, whose large and spacious building was scheduled to be converted into a coronavirus hostel on Tuesday.
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During the Yom Kippur fast, a number of Hasidic ultra-Orthodox communities were found to have widely violated government coronavirus health restrictions by holding mass prayer services. Thousands prayed together in the main study hall of the Belz community in Jerusalem, together with the community’s leading rabbi, or admor.
The Vizhnitz Hasidic community in Bnei Brak even went so far, at the end of Yom Kippur, as to hold a “tisch,” a traditional Hasidic gathering with their admor – which hundreds of people attended indoors, without masks or social distancing. The police were dispatched and came to an understanding with the admor, who concluded the event a short time later.