Yeshivas See 500 New Coronavirus Cases Week and a Half After Reopening

Many ultra-Orthodox religious institutions did not conduct testing or the capsule method of isolating groups of students from each other, leading to uptick

Aaron Rabinowitz
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Students at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood, September 1, 2020.
Students at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood, September 1, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Aaron Rabinowitz

A week and a half since the start of the school year in the yeshiva world, there are about 500 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus, mainly due to outbreaks in several yeshivas that did not adhere to the capsule system.

Still, in most of the institutions where there are outbreaks, the students are not leaving the grounds and are essentially isolating there until Yom Kippur, a month from now.

According to data from the Yeshivot Committee, 150 yeshivas with a total of 25,000 students began the school year in accordance with the capsule formula, in which students begin school in small hermetic groups for the first two weeks, with no one allowed to leave the yeshiva facility during this period, and anyone who does leave is only permitted to return under certain conditions.

Most of the yeshivas required students to have a coronavirus test before coming to school, and so far no serious outbreaks have occurred at yeshivas that adhered to the guidelines. But since the outline for a return to school was only finalized just before the start of the school year, some yeshivas welcomed students back without them being tested first, and there have been outbreaks at some of these schools.

On Wednesday, aides to Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, leader of the Lithuanian Haredi stream, announced that the rabbi gave permission to a number of yeshivas not to conduct comprehensive coronavirus testing since the testing and subsequent quarantine for some students takes time away from Torah study.

Yet they also pointed out that this instruction only applies to yeshivas where the students will not return home until after Yom Kippur about a month from now. The instruction does not apply to the “yeshivot ketanot” (ages 13-16), or to the upper-level yeshivas where students do return to their homes, due to the risk of transmission of the virus.

“The instruction was only given to yeshivas that remain completely locked until Yom Kippur,” the rabbi’s aides said. And the staff at the yeshivas where testing won’t be conducted have been instructed to avoid contact with the students to avoid the risk of infection.

The explanation given was that widespread testing in the yeshivas takes time away from Torah study, while the risk to the students is minimal because of their young age.

“There is no order not to be tested,” the rabbi’s aides said. “If a student wishes to be tested, or if a yeshiva head decides to do testing, that is fine, but the rabbi says it is not mandatory. It’s also important to note that the rabbi has instructed that anyone who doesn’t feel well should go get tested, but in the yeshivas where the students will remain until Yom Kippur it’s not necessary.”

Knowledgeable sources say that the instruction is actually irrelevant to a majority of the yeshivas since most of the students were already tested before coming back. That said, enforcement of the capsule outline is practically nonexistent and every yeshiva head can decide for himself what to do.

“The outbreaks we’re seeing now are only in some of the yeshivas where they didn’t adhere strictly enough to the capsules,” said one person who is familiar with the situation. “There are basically three levels of adherence – yeshivas that insisted on testing and strictly follow the capsule rules, yeshivas that adhere to the capsules but didn’t do testing, and yeshivas that didn’t do either one. In some of the yeshivas in the third category, we’re seeing outbreaks, but in the first two categories there are hardly any infections. And the few that have been found are immediately isolated so there is no danger of mass infection.”

In any event, coronavirus chief Prof. Ronni Gamzu said that Rabbi Kanievsky’s instruction endangers Haredi lives and could lead to a full lockdown of some areas. His comments were met with outrage by some Haredi elected officials. Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman MK Yakov Asher of United Torah Judaism said, “Someone ought to remind Professor Gamzu that letters to presidents of foreign countries, publicized tours of the start of the school year and headlines about rabbis is stuff for politicians, not for someone who wants to defeat the coronavirus. A professional should be committed to another type of conduct.”

UTJ faction chair MK Yitzhak Pindrus said: “I’d suggest that Gamzu not intervene in something that has thousands of years of proven success behind it. Gamzu’s pronouncements since he was appointed have only increased the infection rate. I hope he’s better at running hospitals.”

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