In ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem, Yom Kippur Was Stronger Than the Virus

For the thousands packed into the grand Belz synagogue without masks on Yom Kippur, the coronavirus spreading is sacred self-sacrifice

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An ultra-Orthodox man walks in a Jerusalem street on the eve of Yom Kippur, September 27, 2020.
An ultra-Orthodox man walks in a Jerusalem street on the eve of Yom Kippur, September 27, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

“You walked all the way and you’re not coming in to pray?” implored the Belzer Hasid, with a wide smile (he wasn’t wearing a face mask, so I got the full effect of his fatherly twinkle). Within seconds of friendly interrogation he already had my family roots. “Nu, pick up a siddur and talit, there are plenty of your cousins inside.”

We were standing on one of the inner staircases leading to the grand beit medrash of the Hasidic court in north Jerusalem’s Kiryat Belz neighborhood. And for a few moments, I really wanted to go in.

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I can’t accurately assess of how many people were packed in there for morning prayers on Yom Kippur. The large hall lined with Italian marble, with its towering ark made from wood specially imported from Brazil, contains two thousand regular seats, but beyond the entrance I could see men and boys crowded in all the aisles and spaces around the benches. None of them wore face masks. Roughly, I would say they were at least four thousand.

You’re not afraid. “We’re afraid only of the day of judgement.” But there’s a plague. “Plague? Nu. A virus.” The Days of Awe niggunim from inside were almost hypnotic, melodically drawing me in. It wasn’t just the hidden Hasidic emotions we had spent three generations gradually distancing ourselves from, which, after months of solitude and of slowly shrinking into ourselves, were beginning to stir. There was something so arousing about that glorious gathering of thousands venerating the historic tradition, passionately, without fear. Like jumping from the highest diving board into a deep pool, breaking the fear barrier to immerse oneself among those brave hearts.

There was something so arousing about that glorious gathering of thousands venerating the historic tradition, passionately, without fear.

Ultra-Orthodox men walk in the streets of Jerusalem on Yom Kippur, September 28, 2020.

With difficulty, I walked back down the stairs, into the inner courtyard, full of children playing. In the cloakrooms, thousands of shtreimel hats lay on shelves in long lines of brown fur. Billboards were exhorting the Hasidim to perform one last mitzvah of charity before Yom Kippur began and advising them on how to ensure their prayers would reach the heavenly throne. There was no advice there on avoiding infection. It was if the coronavirus had never existed.

The Belzer Hasidim are no anarchists. On the contrary, they pride themselves in having some of the most orderly and well-funded institutions in the Haredi world. The stupendous beit medrash and sparkling neighborhood, one of the most modern and well-proportioned in ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem, attest to that. They have veteran Knesset Member Yisrael Eichler to take care of their interests. They are as mainstream as Hasidim can be. You would expect them to take COVID-19 seriously.

Instead, without sparing a word, the Belz Hasidic empire, led by Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, has transformed ignoring the pandemic into an ideal. The narrative is already writing itself. Seventy-seven years after Rabbi Aharon Rokeach, the current Belzer Ruv’s uncle, escaped from occupied Europe and began rebuilding his court after the Holocaust, a new myth of heroism is coming together before our eyes – how Belz adhered to all the sacred traditions, in the face of a global plague. Tales of miracles will be written of this righteousness.

Yom Kippur 2020, under lockdown, in Jerusalem, September 28, 2020. No signs or notices could be seen warning people of the risks of congregating during the coronavirus outbreak.

'Coronavirus damages breathing, iPhone damages the soul'

A walk through the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of north and central Jerusalem on Yom Kippur reveals that with very few exceptions, no one here thought for a moment to close the synagogues for fear of infection and move the prayers to open spaces or balconies. Despite government advice, nearly everyone insisted on praying in their usual venues.

In the Hasidic courts, there was a wide variety of approaches. Not everyone ignored the virus as in Belz. At the entrance of Boyan’s beit medrash on Malkei Yisrael street, there were detailed seating lists and instructions, dividing the Hasidim into age groups. Those over sixty were upstairs, while in the main hall, teenage yeshiva students and married men were separated. In the basement, a group of teachers led the children in prayer, their sweet voices giving an entirely different character to the same tunes.

Ultra-Orthodox men and boys stand along a street corner in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem a few hours before the start of Yom Kippur, September 27, 2020.

Yet, despite the instruction, inside, there were still hundreds packed together, few wearing face masks.

A short distance away, around the massive, bare concrete structure which houses the headquarters of Ger, Israel’s largest and most powerful Hasidic sect, there were two circles of security, as guards prevented anyone without a permit from entering. A Hasidic synagogue not allowing fellow Jews to enter on Yom Kippur may be unprecedented, but Ger’s leader, Rabbi Yaakov Alter, has spent millions on an elaborate plan to keep all of 3,600 followers with him in isolation. With begrudging agreement from the Health Ministry, they all underwent two COVID-19 tests each and agreed to stay inside within specially prepared capsules for two weeks before Rosh Hashana, just so they could all be together with the rabbi until Yom Kippur. The plan doesn’t seem to have worked: Hundreds of infections have been reported in the community.

At the heart of the Haredi autonomy, where the Hasidic groups belonging to the Eda Haredit forbid any cooperation with the “heretical” state, the refusal to abide by the restrictions was presented as a rebellion. Two large Palestinian flags were raised over their stronghold in Mea Shearim street. This is not a rare sight in this small community of anti-Zionist zealots, which consists of only a tiny minority among ultra-Orthodoxy, but the flags are ordinarily flown on Israel’s Independence Day, not on Yom Kippur. This year however, the normal act of gathering for prayer in synagogues of Hasidic sects like Toldot Aharon was an act of resistance.

A man walks past the graffiti of a Palestinian flag in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, June 11, 2020.

The posters plastered on the walls of the central Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Mea Shearim and Beit Yisrael were headlined “The Yom Kippur War 5781” and promised that “the eternal struggle between holiness and profanity, between belief and heresy, between Judaism and Zionism, is at a crucial point,” since the Netanyahu government has “proclaimed war against the most holy day in Israel.” They seemed not to have heard that Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox allies, had actually allowed the synagogues to remain open.

Anyone can put up notices on the walls of Haredi neighborhoods, and they don’t necessarily accurately represent the opinions of either the leadership or the public, although they do tend to reflect prevailing views, at least those of the hard core. Many posters referenced the coronavirus, but none of them actually called for distancing or hygiene as a way for preventing illness. The writers had instead identified two other sources of infection – smartphones (one notice warned that “corona damages breathing, iPhone damages the soul” – it rhymes in Hebrew, sort of) and, of course, immodestly dressed women.

Sagging partitions

The non-Hasidic branches of ultra-Orthodoxy, the “Lithuanians” and Sephardim, seemingly take the coronavirus a bit more seriously, but mainly for appearances' sake. Haredi journalists and publicists (it’s often difficult to differentiate them) have for weeks now, since the start of the Elul term beginning before Rosh Hashanah, been posting on social media photographs of yeshivas in self-imposed isolation, of parents visiting their sons only from afar and study halls divided into capsules by plastic sheeting. But the “capsule guidelines,” even if it was serious to begin with, seems to have been forsaken by the end of the 40-day period.

By Yom Kippur, in most of the yeshivas I visited, very little plastic sheeting is left. In the Sephardi yeshiva Ateret Shlomo in the Geula neighborhood, which borders Mea Shearim, there was only one “capsule” left, with a few disconsolate people praying within, while the rest of the students and rabbis were packed in the main space. At least most of them were wearing masks.

A society which is used to a life of self-imposed penury, which raises its children on the stories of rabbis who risked their lives to pray and study, needs to reinforce its self-sacrifice.

Men pray separated by plastic sheeting in a synagogue in the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak, September 21, 2020.

On the doors of Or Ha’Chaim yeshiva, under the presidency of Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, a member of Shas’ Council of Torah Sages, there were notices announcing that “due to the capsule guidelines, only those who have registered in advance may enter for prayers.” But the doors were open, and inside the sheeting had sagged so low that a small child could have stepped between the “capsules.” They certainly weren’t going to stop any germs from spreading.

In the largest yeshiva in Israel, the Lithuanian Yeshivat Mir, sheeting was stable, high and fixed onto sturdy wooden frames. But within the “capsules” were dozens more people praying than the guidelines allow. Similar fervor could be seen in other Lithuanian synagogues in the area.

Men pray while children ride bikes around them during Yom Kippur services held outside to comply with coronavirus regulations, September 28, 2020.

At this stage in the pandemic, none of the early excuses about lack of communication with the outside world and ignorance of science can apply. The disproportionate number of ill and dead from COVID-19 within the Haredi community means they all know what we are up against. The ultra-Orthodox, like everyone else, have made their trade-off between protecting themselves from the virus and preserving a semblance of normal life. And their choice is clear: Sticking to tradition is more important. But perhaps it goes even beyond that. A society which is used to a life of self-imposed penury in tiny crowded apartments, which raises its children on the stories of rabbis who risked their lives to pray and study, and of saintly women who immersed themselves in the waters of frozen rivers to purify themselves from their monthly period, needs to reinforce its self-sacrifice.

Not all the Haredim see it this way; there have been a few contradictory voices, such as that of Rabbi David Yosef, who has repeatedly called for closing down all synagogues. But even in the most famous Sephardi synagogue in central Jerusalem, “Yazdim,” where David Yosef's father Rabbi Ovadia Yosef would deliver his popular Saturday night lessons, Yom Kippur prayers proceeded nearly as normal, with a few plastic sheets but no real distancing.

There was another way of praying together on Yom Kippur 5781. In Jerusalem and many other cities around Israel, hundreds of thousands of Israelis prayed, in small groups, in the open air, in backyards, gardens and parks, even by the side of the road on plastic chairs, as children rode bikes around them, another cherished Israeli Yom Kippur tradition. Around Tel Aviv’s iconic Dizengoff Square, the singing voices of men and women mingled.

Perhaps this Yom Kippur created two parallel narratives. That of the Haredi autonomy, standing up to the rest of the nation, maintaining the trauma of victimhood and deepening divisions. And the narrative of a new open-air Israeli-style prayer, which despite the distancing, also brought down barriers, and brought people together.

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