Regardless of Coronavirus Lockdown, ultra-Orthodox Plan for Mass Holiday Prayers

Tens of thousands of worshipers expected in Haredi towns in very crowded conditions – and local authorities have given up

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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The Vizhnitz community during Purim, March 21, 2019.
The Vizhnitz community during Purim, March 21, 2019.Credit: Rami Shllush
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

Despite the government’s plan for a general lockdown over the Jewish holiday period beginning on the evening of September 18 and COVID-19 infection rates setting new records daily, tens of thousands of Haredim, many from virus hotspots, have no intention of giving up their mass prayer services on Rosh Hashanah.

The major centers for especially crowded gatherings will be the prayers services in Hasidic communities, officials in local governments in Haredi towns told Haaretz. “Rosh Hashanah in the Hasidic areas is going to be one of the harshest plagues of the coronavirus,” said one official. “There is no way to preserve the ‘traffic light’ framework [for stopping the spread of the disease] and [its wrong] to think there will be only one worshipper for every 7 square meters.”

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The two largest ultra-Orthodox communities leading the fight to preserve routine life as much as possible are the Belz and the Vizhnitz communities, each of which is made up of tens of thousands of people. A source in one of these Hasidic communities said he estimates that about 10,000 people will pray together at each mass prayer service. “The story will begin on this Saturday night with the Selichot [penitential prayer service], but that's small compared to what is about to happen on Rosh Hashanah.”

The Belz and Vishnitz communities have been holding mass events for the past few months, and what is expected to take place during the prayer services is not especially out of the ordinary for them. The planned lockdown will not stop the mass services either, said the source. “This lockdown will be more for the non-religious. For the Haredim life will continue on as usual,” he said, adding that even if police officers are stationed at the entrances of large Hasidic synagogues, it won’t work and there will be “serious violence.”

Followers of the Hasidic sect of Shomrei Emunim attend the funeral of their Rabbi Refael Aharon Roth, who died from the virus, Bnei Brak, August 13, 2020Credit: Oded Balilty/AP

In smaller Hasidic sects the situation is similar: The Sadigura Hasidim held an event a week and a half ago where dozens of participants were infected with the virus. This number includes only those infected directly at the event – it is likely the total number of those who became ill as a result is much higher, according to a source familiar with the details of the event. The Admor (leader) of Sadigura returned from Belgium several days ago, and instead of going into isolation as required, he organized another large event. “The situation in Haredi society is really bad, and that’s an understatement,” the source said.

In addition, local governments don’t know how to deal with the hundreds of people infected in Haredi yeshivas, the source said. According to data from Bnei Brak city hall, about 30 percent – some 500 out of 1,800 – of the active patients in the city are yeshiva students. Not all the yeshivas have been successful in keeping their students separated into pods, and many students leave the buildings and move around in the city among residents. Infections have also been recorded at yeshivas for younger students aged 13 through 16, and these students return home every day. In total, over the past two weeks, about 4,000 people with the virus were found in Haredi yeshivas.

The source laid the blame on the rabbis leading the Haredi communites. “The rabbis are not with us in the fight against the coronavirus,” he said. “They decided to continue studying in the yeshivas and schools, and even Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, who until recently took a stricter approach concerning the coronavirus, fell in line and approved the opening” of yeshivas, he added.

Besides the Admors of Ger and Karlin, the rest of the rabbis are no longer partners in the fight and the local governments in Haredi towns have no way of continuing the battle against the outbreak, said the source.

Bnei Brak Mayor Avraham Rubinstein has given up, after realizing he did not have the rabbis’ support, residents of the Haredi-majority city said.

A man in Bnei Brak does the morning prayer while socially distancing and wearing a mask, September 9, 2020.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

The Ger and Karlin communities may be the last two large Hasidic sects that are still strictly sticking to the health requirements. Ger Hasidim received instructions not to attend Rosh Hashanah services, said a source in the community. “It is on the level of national mourning there, and the Hasidim are going crazy from grief.”

The Ger community has built a special system of pods for Rosh Hashanah services, with some 3,000 worshippers expected to attend prayers at the main hall for the community in Jerusalem. But the main study hall is huge and social distancing requirements in this community are very strict.

Despite the feeling of helplessness, another source in Bnei Break said that he hopes the expected lockdown will save the residents from the planned mass prayer services on Rosh Hashanah. Maybe the Israeli government “Will solve the problem of these services,” he said. The police know about the plans for the mass services and have already asked the Vizhnitz community to cancel them. But without the cooperation of the rabbis there is no real way to prevent it, he added. “Our hope is that if Vizhnitz decided to change direction, maybe the rest of the Hasidic groups will fall in line.”

Given the low numbers of deaths from the virus and the low number of those infected in serious condition in the Haredi community compared to the general public, it is difficult explaining the problem to the rabbis. “In the last two weeks, there were about 200 deaths in Israel, at a time when in Bnei Brak not a single person died,” he said. The age profile of those infected in Bnei Brak is very young, and they get through it without too many problems, he said. “So when you go to the Admor or rabbi, he looks at you and doesn’t understand what you are talking about.”

At this stage, it seems that the local governments do not have enough power to stop the leaders of the Hasidic communities, but it is not for lack of trying, said the source. “What can the local government do to the Admor?” he asked. Does the government “have the power to fight against Belz or Vizhnitz? You need to understand that there is no governability in the country today, everyone does what they want. We are in a new world.”

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