Despite a surge in coronavirus infections in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, tens of thousands of Haredi pupils continue to attend educational institutions in violation of regulations. “For two months we had not a single verified case; now we’re in the midst of an insane outbreak,” a principal at one of these institutions told Haaretz. “It’s much bigger than the first and second waves,” he said.
According to the regulations, studies in grades 5 to 12 must be suspended in communities or neighborhoods defined as “red” or “orange,” according to their rate of infection. Many Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem have reached these levels in the last two weeks. The data shows that a major factor in the present surge is the school system. For example, of the almost 400 Hardim who were verified as infected with the virus in Jerusalem on Monday, 150 were pupils.
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Of the 1,156 infected pupils in the city, 61 percent belong to Haredi communities, 21 percent are Palestinians from East Jerusalem and 18 percent are pupils in state schools. Forty six percent of the infected Haredi pupils study in lower grades, while 43 percent study in high schools and seminaries. A further 11 percent are in kindergartens.
“We haven’t seen the likes of this, not even something close to it,” said one Haredi principal. “Every hour there is a new confirmed case. I’ve had dozens of confirmed infections in my institution over the last few days.” He says that “every infected pupil has someone infected at home, parents or siblings, with whole families infected.”
Since the leader of the Lithuanian-Haredi community, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, ordered the opening of all institutions, flouting the government prohibition on doing so, only a few dozen fines have been handed out. There appears to have been only token enforcement. In recent weeks there have been no reports of fines imposed on Haredi institutions which violated the regulations.
If the contagion continues to rise, other communities with large numbers of ultra-Orthodox residents will become “orange” or “red” as well. Despite this, these communities do not intend to suspend studies. “There is more transparency in relation to the Ministry of Education and we close classes in which pupils are verified as infected,” claimed one school principal in a Haredi city. “Other than that, all institutions continue to function as usual.”
This principal added that there is currently no Haredi leader who is capable of shutting down the school system. “There is no courageous leadership that is willing to go against the mindset of their followers, who want to see schools remaining open,” he said.
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“There are constant consultations around this issue,” said a Jerusalem school principal. Some of his colleagues believe that if children are sent home, they will infect others in much larger numbers. When asked why he thought the surge was so rapid, he replied: “I don’t have a precise explanation, but I know there were two weddings in our community, where safety measures were not adhered to. All the pupils who attended those weddings with their families were confirmed to be infected.”
The recent surge in infection rates in Haredi towns and neighborhoods in Israel comes after a six-week period in which the community had among the lowest rates in the country.
However, since Sunday the cities of Bnei Brak, Betar Illit, Elad and the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof have become red zones
In Jerusalem’s Haredi neighborhoods, where the average number of new daily cases was until recently 20, there are now nearly 200 a day. The weekly ratio of positive tests, which was around 3 percent three weeks ago, has reached 12 percent. For several weeks, there had been no coronavirus-related deaths and only three people had been hospitalized in the Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem. But over the past three days there have been five deaths and the number of hospitalized shot up to 25.
The Jerusalem municipality says that “the city does not have the authority to enforce Health Ministry regulations in schools. Despite this, the city is active in many “red” areas in order to help the population there and to disseminate information in order to reduce the level of contagion in these neighborhoods.”
The police did not respond to a request to comment for this story.