Coronavirus Cases Traced Back to Synagogues, but Israel Won't Enforce Regulations

A police document obtained by Haaretz shows synagogues effectively excluded from 10-person cap on public gatherings, despite over a third of latest confirmed patients visiting houses of worship in the days preceding their diagnosis

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Workers sprays disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 17, 2020.
Workers sprays disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 17, 2020. Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

The latest emergency regulations issued by the Israeli Health Ministry to contain the coronavirus outbreak dictate limits to public gatherings, but a police document obtained by Haaretz shows that officers were ordered not to enforce them in synagogues.

This is despite the fact that more than one-third of the coronavirus patients diagnosed over the weekend visited synagogues during the period they were presumably infectious.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 70Credit: Haaretz

Government orders prohibit gatherings of over 10 people, but the police document pus the maximum number of people allowed to pray together at 20.

The Israel Police said on Sunday the document obtained by Haaretz was only a draft, stressing that the 20-person clause refers to religious ceremonies such as weddings and funerals, rather than regular services.

The government's emergency measures allow Israelis to leave home only in specific cases, including to attend religious ceremonies, but Health Ministry orders strictly prohibit gatherings of over 10 people.

According to the police document, officers were instructed that except for business opening regulations, other measures have not been set as criminal offenses and they are not to strictly enforce them.

Police, the document states, can work to close businesses according to the new regulations, including malls and retail markets to the general public, but because internal police procedures have not yet been formulated and the system for issuing reports is still inactive, fines will not be currently imposed.

The Health Ministry published information on the movements of 95 patients; at least 32 of them visited synagogues, yeshivas or Chabad Houses in the days preceding their diagnosis.

Some of the patients are related. The number of COVID-19 patients who visited synagogues may actually be higher, as full epidemiological histories and movement records have not yet been published for all the affected individuals.

The most recent patients whose movements were published visited synagogues between seven and 10 days ago. During this period, worship and study continued in synagogues and yeshivas, and weddings and other events with large numbers of participants were held in at least some ultra-Orthodox communities. The fear is that the latest reports signal the start of a wave of infections resulting from religious gatherings.

The Health Ministry’s prohibition on gatherings that exceed 10 people allows for the minyan of 10 adults required for a Jewish prayer quorum. Prof. Sigal Sadetsky, head of public health services in the ministry, has admitted that group worship is inadvisable from a medical perspective. The government directives issued Friday, prohibiting Israelis from leaving home except for essential needs, permits “going out for a religious ceremony, including worship.”

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the leader of the Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) Haredi community, called for yeshiva studies to continue in violation of the directives, but most such religious schools have in fact closed.

Public health officials view the Haredi community as a weak and particularly sensitive link in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus, because its members are less likely to be exposed to media outlets and to social media, and thus less likely to have heard or read the Health Ministry’s directives. This fact is compounded by the high population density in most ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and the fact that until recently the community continued with its daily routines, including large gatherings.

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