Ultra-Orthodox Leaders Hold Large Passover Gatherings, Violating Israel's Coronavirus Regulations

Most of the Haredi community is said to have observed the health restrictions meticulously, but some leading rabbis even violated their own admonitions

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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Children hold hands during the ritual burning of hametz, leavened foods forbidden during the Passover holiday, in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, April 7, 2020.
Children hold hands during the ritual burning of hametz, leavened foods forbidden during the Passover holiday, in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, April 7, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

A number of ultra-Orthodox religious leaders held Passover gatherings over the past week at which hundreds of people participated, in violation of emergency coronavirus regulations and in some cases in violation of the leaders’ own directives. Some of the events were conducted in secret.

The most senior rabbi to allegedly violate the Health Ministry regulations was Yissachar Dov Rokeach, the head of the Belz Hasidic dynasty. Rokeach, a senior member of the Council of Torah Sages of the Agudat Yisrael faction of the United Torah Judaism, is considered the second-most-important Hasidic leader, after the leader of the Ger dynasty.

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According to a number of sources in the Hasidic community, Rokeach led a Passover eve seder at the Hasidic movement’s main study hall in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Belz neighborhood in which dozens of people participated. On Wednesday of this week, the last day of Passover, he is also said to have conducted prayer services for hundreds of his adherents, in violation of Health Ministry guidelines, which currently prohibit any group prayer over concern that it would spread the coronavirus.

“[Rokeach] felt a very powerful longing and has been pressing for this for a long time,” said one of those who attended. “At first people refused him and told him it would be impossible. But the rebbe looked into the issue of infection and argued that gathering while maintaining a distance would not lead to infection,” the source said.

“The doors weren’t open, and people had to enter through doors that were concealed and were opened only once every hour,” he added. Most of the worshipers were Rokeach’s relatives and other close associates or officials in the Hasidic community, the source said. “Someone was put in charge of making sure that people remained spread apart,” he added.

Members of the Hasidic community denied reports of the event at first, but after checking on the matter admitted that the prayer service had taken place. Other sources maintained their denials.

One senior figure in the Belz movement told Haaretz: “Outwardly, there was a change of routine, but in practice the admor gave instructions to continue as usual,” referring to Rokach using the Hebrew abbreviation for a revered rabbinic leader in the Hasidic community.

“Minyanim are being held in secret in all Hasidic communities in Israel,” he acknowledged, referring to Jewish communal worship and the required prayer quorum, in the Orthodox community, of 10 adult Jewish men. “The admor believes there is nothing special about the coronavirus and that everything can carry on as usual, as long as it isn’t made public.”

Toledot Avraham Yitzhak, an extremist Hasidic court based in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, also held a communal event in violation of the regulations. In the middle of the night between Wednesday and Thursday of this week, hundreds of followers gathered outside the home of Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Kahan to sing “The Song of the Sea” from the Book of Exodus, which is traditional on the last night of Passover.

One source said that members of the sect, which is responsible for a significant portion of the conflict with the police in the neighborhood, had promised the police in advance that they would keep things quiet during the holiday. But pictures of the nighttime event showed hundreds of men crowded together on the street and singing with their rabbi.

Israel Police forces deploy in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, in Jerusalem, to enforce movement restrictions, April 16, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The Pinsk-Karlin Hasidic group held also held Passover services with dozens of worshipers in Mea She’arim in violation of the emergency regulations, according to information obtained by Haaretz, and the admor of the Slonim dynasty in Jerusalem prayed with around 100 adherents. Most of the admorim have been kept at a distance from all but a few of their close aides in an effort to prevent their being infected with the coronavirus, and at the worship services, social distancing between the leaders and their followers has been maintained, sources said.

There are other examples in the ultra-Orthodox community of leaders who have not been complying with the emergency regulations. The most prominent among them is the leader of the so-called Lithuanian, non-Hasidic community, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who according to several sources has been holding a daily minyan at his home, in violation of Health Ministry directives and of his own instructions to his followers.

Rabbi Baruch Dov Povarsky, the head of the Ponevezh yeshiva, has also been reportedly conducting minyanim in his home. A source told Haaretz that Povarsky was following Kanievsky’s lead.

Social distancing generally observed

Most of the admors have not issued prohibitions against holding minyanim, and some of them have been taking part in limited prayer groups on a daily basis. Nevertheless, members of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox – or Haredi communities as they are known in Hebrew – say the social-distancing regulations are in fact being observed very carefully by an overwhelming majority of the community. Sources say the streets in these areas are empty and people leave their homes only to buy food and other necessities.

Ultra-Orthodox men in the Mea Shearim neighborhood, Jerusalem, April 14, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Many of the largest outbreaks of the virus have occurred in Haredi communities where precautions had earlier been lacking, later prompting special limitations on movement in and out of them.

One of the leaders behind strict observance of the guidelines is Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, who heads the Ponevezh yeshiva along with Kanievsky. Even before the Health Ministry issued its directives, he prayed alone at home and other relatives were barred from his home. Edelstein issued a religious ruling prohibiting communal prayer, even to read from the Torah.

A rare move

On Thursday, in a rare move, the Haredi newspaper Yated Ne’eman published an opinion piece on its front page that stated: “A Jew who observes the commandment to protect oneself, because it is a matter of life or death, must do so as fully and as strictly as possible and we must rejoice in its observance.”

The essay – written in response to calls in other ultra-Orthodox media outlets to lift the special restrictions imposed on some Haredi communities, which critics had called discriminatory – noted the high incidence of the virus in the community and the threat that it poses.

Men praying while respecting social distancing regulations during the coronavirus pandemic, Jerusalem, April 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“The number of infections in the Haredi community is higher for the most objective reasons, but it requires us to take the most extreme cautionary measures, because that is what religious law demands and what the great [religious] leaders are crying out for. If circumstances demand that we not pray in a minyan, we should rejoice at observing the mitzvah to protect ourselves by not praying in a minyan,” the article stated.

“Prayer and reading from the Torah at a time like this are a ‘sin’ and the offender is a ‘rodef,’” a threat. “Not leaving home unless it’s necessary isn’t because of a curfew or a regulation, but rather a basic act of preservation,” the essay said. “That’s difficult? The alternative could be much more difficult.”

Men pray in Jerusalem, April 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

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