Violating Israel's COVID Restrictions, ultra-Orthodox Reopen Schools in Hotspots

About 60,000 Haredi students returned to junior religious schools after leader of Lithuanian Haredi community ordered principals to fully reopen on Sunday, in spite of Health Ministry coronavirus directives

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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Ultra-Orthodox children enter a Talmud Torah (religious junior school), October 18, 2020
Ultra-Orthodox children enter a Talmud Torah (religious junior school), October 18, 2020Credit: Emil Salman
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

Some 60,000 Haredi students returned to religious junior schools which reopened on Sunday, in violation of Israel's coronavirus restrictions, under the order of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community leader.

Many of the schools that were opened are located in "red" cities, which suffer from a high COVID-19 infection rate.

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Police sources told Haaretz that Sunday morning's enforcement in ultra-Orthodox cities was "extremely minimal." They also noted that they had not received clear instructions with respect to how to respond to the reopening of religious schools until early Sunday morning.

The Israel Police rejected these allegations and noted that a directive was issued ordering officers to take action with respect to religious schools that reopen, and specifically, to issue a NIS 5,000 fine to the director of each such school.

Since Sunday morning, the police said that officers have issued 5,000 shekel fines to three school principals in the ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement of Betar Ilit and in the town of Modi'in Ilit for opening their schools against regulations, and an additional two will receive a fine. The police statement also said officers were instructing teachers to stop classes and to send students safely home.

A Channel N12 reporter and his crew who went to document the reopening of religious schools in Betar Ilit on Sunday, said they had been verbally attacked by dozens of teenage boys, and that their vehicles were damaged by stones and eggs thrown by the youth. Police confirmed that officers arrived at the scene, rescued the crew and that an investigation has been opened on the matter.

A resident of Modi'in Ilit told Haaretz:"The police know exactly where every Talmud Torah is and turn a blind eye. So this morning, they fined one of them, you think that will deter anyone? They prefer that the kids get sick, so long as they're not out on the streets. If the police want to, they can enforce it, but anyone can enter the city and anyone can leave it, everything's just a sham."

On Saturday, Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community leader, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, ordered the directors of Talmud Torah (religious schools) to fully reopen on Sunday, contrary to Health Ministry directives and despite disagreement with another leader of the community, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, who believed that Talmud Torah should only reopen with the government's consent.

According to Kanievsky's decree, school directors are to enforce social distancing rules and split classes into the smallest groups possible, in addition to maintaining the wearing of masks and hygiene. An ultra-Orthodox Talmud Torah director who spoke with Haaretz said that some schools would split the students into groups that would study on alternate days.

Although Kanievsky argued that the schools should have reopened as early as last week, following pressure from a number of sources, he ordered school principals to refrain from doing so in the hopes of reaching agreement with the Health Ministry on a reopening strategy.

However, it became clear last week that such an agreement could not be reached since the government cannot allow the ultra-Orthodox education system to reopen while the secular one remains closed.

Kanievsky, who contracted the coronavirus about two weeks ago, had ordered Talmud Torah and yeshivas to stay open during the first wave of the pandemic in the spring, asserting that neglecting Torah studies was more dangerous than the virus.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the Israeli public on Saturday night, on the eve of the first stage of Israel’s lockdown exit strategy, which went into effect on Sunday.

When asked whether he condemned Kanievsky’s order to reopen schools, Netanyahu said: “I call on the Haredi community not to do this … Our Torah sanctifies live, it is a bible of life.”

When asked if he would send police to keep religious schools from opening, Netanyahu said "we can't send police to every street corner or every city.” He also said that regulations would be enforced “to the best of our ability,” and that the most important thing was to keep a tight seal on "red" cities.

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