Dozens of buses will leave midday Thursday from locations across Israel, all heading for Yirmiyahu Street 3 in Jerusalem, address of the Ger Hasidim’s giant study hall. These buses will carry 2,000 yeshiva students who haven’t been home for three weeks, during which time they were tested twice for the coronavirus.
“People agree to give up seeing their wives and children for this,” say members of this Hasidic group. Their journey will not end when they alight from the buses and enter the study hall, but only after a week and a half, after Yom Kippur, when they finally go home.
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Until that time, they will remain closed inside, unable to leave. What won’t one do to participate in the Rosh Hashanah prayer with the admor, their spiritual leader? In addition to this group, 1,000 additional Hasidim who won a special lottery earlier this year will pray in an adjacent building, with the admor. The other 2,000 will hear the prayers from another building. In normal years, 18,000 men and 4,000 women attend these prayers. This year, women will have to stay home, with only 1,000 men attending the prayers.
The special plan devised for the Ger Hasidim came about after a visit to the location by epidemiologist Prof. Itamar Grotto, who is responsible for the ultra-Orthodox population in the fight against the virus, as well as representatives of a council for yeshivas and representatives of the Ger Hasidim.
“The permission given for 1,000 participants is congruent with the criteria for conducting synagogue prayers,” says a senior Ger Hasid. “That’s why we don’t see any problem with it or think it needs special approval.” Despite this, a source at the Health Ministry told Haaretz that the Ger admor was asked not to proceed without approval, so talks with the ministry continue.
The total obedience to the admor among Ger Hasidim has turned out to be a great advantage during the pandemic. The admor, who is known to be very strict on health issues, instructed his flock to take every precaution and abide by all Health Ministry regulations. Thus, one can hardly see a Ger Hasid walking around without a mask. The admor’s house has been fitted with new systems and partitions, estimated to have cost more than 100,000 shekels ($29,000), in an attempt to maintain his isolation while meeting only a handful of people.
Thus, the Ger Hasidim launched an unprecedented logistical campaign to enable adherence to ministry guidelines and to allow a large as possible a prayer gathering at Rosh Hashanah. The study hall was divided into strictly separated capsules, with every congregant familiar with the exact point he enters and the exact seat he occupies.
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“We gave out tickets, setting up teams wearing vests, the works!” says a senior Ger Hasid.
The investment in the adjacent building, where the 2,000 students will remain, is unusual by any criterion, and is estimated to have cost the group 7 million shekels. In recent days, they set up three huge ritual baths there, with 100 showers. Two floors have been set aside as dormitories.
“The lower floor will have the baths and showers, the second floor the dining area and the third floor the study area. The two floors above that contain the dormitories,” says this Hasid.
According to a draft of this plan obtained by Haaretz, the Ger Hasidim received a dispensation to bring 1,000 people into the study hall, due to the special conditions there and the size of the area (almost 40,000 square feet). The compound has 300 bathrooms, says the plan. The entry and exit routes of the different capsules will be marked and separated. Worshippers will enter and leave through designated doors.
Regarding the other study hall, the plan calls for documenting and registering everyone, including name, ID number, address, phone and capsule number. Registration will be managed by a person responsible for handling the pandemic, who will report to the district health office and to the headquarters of the campaign against the virus.
The Ger Hasidim are required to appoint a coronavirus supervisor for each group. He will have to make sure that procedures are implemented and document the health status of each group daily, including taking temperatures and interrogating worshippers.
The plans calls for traveling to Jerusalem only on designated buses leaving the different yeshivas, making no stops along the way. Priority will be given to bus drivers who are part of the community, otherwise a six-foot distance will be maintained between drivers and passengers.
The senior Geur Hasid says that some yeshivas already have experience in moving their students somewhere else under controlled conditions. “A few weeks ago, everyone in the Hevron yeshiva went to the beach. They left at 1 A.M., got on the bus, and were at the beach for a few hours before returning. As long as they don’t come in contact with someone from the outside there is no problem,” he says.
A source at the Health Ministry told Haaretz that the plan for the 1,000 has already been approved, and that the one for 2,000 students is still under review. “Logically, it should also be approved, but there are some capsules with sick people, so this is still under discussion,” he said.
A Zoom meeting about this issue was held on Wednesday. Health Ministry officials asked for more details. No approval has been given yet, but the likelihood that it will is great. “This group is the one meticulously sticking to guidelines. They’ve built an empire there,” said one source. “We realize that it will be difficult to explain to the public what the difference is between prayers there and everywhere else.”