Analysis |

If You Think Yeshivas Can Follow COVID-19 Guidelines, You’ve Clearly Never Visited One

The ‘capsule plan’ is supposed to prevent the coronavirus from spreading among ultra-Orthodox students in Israel, but a trip to a few yeshivas in Bnei Brak reveals some fatal flaws

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Ultra Orthodox Yeshiva students in Jerusalem
Ultra Orthodox Yeshiva students in Jerusalem Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The study halls (batei midrash) of Israeli yeshivas were divided into “capsules” by plastic sheets for the first two weeks of the Elul term. In each capsule, dozens of teenagers and young men are bent over their volumes of the Talmud.

According to the so-called capsule plan – agreed upon with the Health Ministry – each group of students is isolated from the others, including in the dining halls and dormitories.

A visit to some of the main yeshivas in Bnei Brak this week reveals that the plastic sheets are still up, though here and there you can see makeshift gaps for passing between the capsules. Outside the study halls, meanwhile, there is nothing to separate the students crowding through the narrow corridors and lining up by the kitchen door for hot trays of food to take back to the dormitory.

The ultra-Orthodox leadership claims there’s no reason to be concerned about infection rates among yeshiva students. They’re young and aren’t liable to be stricken by COVID-19 anyway, they say. Furthermore, they’re shut away in yeshiva and won’t infect others. The mayors of Haredi towns insist that the hundreds of cases of the coronavirus recorded so far in the yeshivas shouldn’t be added to their total tallies, which classify them as a “red” town in the country’s new “traffic light” system that seeks to reduce the rate of infection.

If you believe them, you probably imagine that a yeshiva exists in a secluded campus – something like the cloistered leafy colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. Or perhaps a closed military base. But there is no gatehouse or guard at a yeshiva entrance, and most of them are situated in residential neighborhoods. That’s especially true of Bnei Brak, where they’re next door to the homes of ordinary residents and, in many cases, the dormitories are in regular apartment buildings.

After visiting some yeshivas and talking to staff at others, it’s clear that nothing is preventing the students from roaming the surrounding streets between study sessions and in the evening, or shopping in the local stores. Some prodigious teenagers are no doubt capable of not leaving the yeshiva building through the 40 days between the beginning of Elul and Yom Kippur, but they’re rare individuals.

There’s no standard for managing a yeshiva. Not in normal times, nor during a pandemic. Each institute is run on different lines depending on its location, the number of students, the buildings in which it operates (they are rarely purpose-built), and the personal whims and traditions of its rosh yeshiva (dean). The odds of them all conforming to the capsule plan throughout the 40-day term when no one is inspecting them is nil.

There are some yeshivas – mainly those better endowed with donors’ money – that can do it. Some have made a great show of how parents can only greet their sons from afar, beyond a fence. But the discipline in most yeshivas is lax. They are part of the crowded urban environment around them. Infected and infecting.

Nevertheless, last week the “house” of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky – the most senior rabbi of the so-called Lithuanian stream, under whose aegis most of the yeshivas operate – issued an order that students are not to be tested for the coronavirus. Since they’re not leaving the yeshivas until after Yom Kippur (at the end of September), the reasoning went, they’re not going to infect anyone. Therefore, the yeshivas are de facto “coronavirus hotels.”

The government’s coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, dared volunteer his professional opinion that Rabbi Kanievsky was endangering the Haredi community with his edict, and was met with a chorus of condemnation from ultra-Orthodox politicians and harassment on his personal phone.

Yeshiva students in Sderot studying in separate plastic cells set up amid the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, August 25, 2020.Credit: AFP

On Monday, he was allowed to visit Bnei Brak only after offering an abject apology for his “misunderstanding,” saying “it was a decision made by a number of rabbis regarding specific cases of yeshiva students staying in closed capsules after being tested for the coronavirus and according to regulations agreed upon in advance.” Last week, though, no one had denied it had come from Kanievsky.

Kanievsky, of course, can contradict himself. As it is, he only signs letters presented to him, and all his communications with the outside world are done though his grandson and a tiny group of retainers. It’s easy to ascribe a statement to him and then claim he never actually said it.

The 92-year-old is at the same stage of life as a number of other ultra-Orthodox leaders in recent decades. Thanks to modern medicine, he made it to a ripe old age. But modern medicine doesn’t necessarily guarantee clarity of thought and a connection to reality. The Haredi cult of their rabbis does not recognize the limitations of old age. As far as they’re concerned, the rabbis are just like Moses, of whom the Bible said that even at 120 “his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated” – since the Torah he has studied has protected him from feebleness or senility.

This is very convenient for the tight circle of relatives and hangers-on who derive their status and livelihood from the rabbi’s preeminence. Every person who is allowed to come into direct contact with Kanievsky has a personal interest in attesting to his vigor and coherence – except doctors, of course, who are bound by medical privacy.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, right, and some of his followers in Jerusalem, 2013. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The yeshivas are part of the Haredi fabric of life, just like the cramped housing projects and synagogues. They cannot be closed or isolated in capsules, and any expectation that they will abide by the restrictions of public health experts is as reasonable as anyone admitting that a nonagenarian rabbi is also human, too tired and weak to lead his community.

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