With Enforcement Lax and Politicians Mostly Silent, Virus Runs Wild Among Israel's Haredim

On Friday, Haredi WhatsApp groups posted announcements about mass events, along with requests to pray for hospitalized patients – a stream of messages that reads like an illustration of cause and effect, as infection and fatality rates soar in ultra-Orthodox communities

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
Bnei Brak, January 17, 2021.
Bnei Brak, January 17, 2021. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

The cries at the funeral Sunday in Elad filled the air as Shmuel Yodlovich eulogized his wife, Tzipi, a 40-year-old woman with no underlying conditions who died over Shabbat after contracting the coronavirus. “When we were singing ‘A Woman of Valor’ [on Friday night] the angels were leading you to heaven,” he is heard saying on a recording of the eulogy that was circulated.

Similar eulogies have been heard over the past several weeks at cemeteries in many ultra-Orthodox communities. The rate of infection in the Haredi community during the current wave of the pandemic is breaking records. The bulletin boards in Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem are seeing death notices pasted over each other daily and the mourning pages on Haredi websites are being updated at a dizzying pace. Many members of the community are hospitalized in serious condition.

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Within a month the number of new cases has soared, as has the number of hospitalized patients and deaths in all the Haredi towns and neighborhoods. The Health Ministry believes the coronavirus’ British mutation has been spreading in these neighborhoods, but it’s clear to everyone that that’s not the only reason for the speed of the outbreak. Educational institutions that were open, synagogues operating almost as normal, weddings and mass events have all contributed.

At the same time, the police have carried out almost no enforcement in the Haredi areas, and it seems everyone has just given up and accepted that in large swaths of Haredi society, the law is simply irrelevant. Every sect acts as it sees fit, and the police do everything not to interfere. Over the past few days the Jerusalem police have sent large forces into the neighborhoods of Mea She’arim and Beit Yisrael, but it looked more like a show for the cameras than effective enforcement. Instead, police have been blaming Haredi mayors and rabbis for not helping it enforce the restrictions and in some cases even encouraging their violation.

Despite the tightened lockdown that began 10 days ago, dozens of educational institutions belonging to the more extreme communities have gone on operating almost undisturbed. Over the past couple of days the schools of the more mainstream Haredim have also begun to open, after a number of principals got permission to do so from Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, leader of the non-Hasidic Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community. Synagogues, ritual baths and yeshivas have continued to operate unhindered. There have also been weddings and large events like mass meals and prayers held by various Hasidic courts.

This past Friday various Haredi WhatsApp groups disseminated announcements about planned mass events, alongside numerous requests to pray for people who have been hospitalized with the coronavirus. The stream of messages reads like a perfect illustration of cause and effect.

The numbers don’t lie. Jerusalem has 20 percent of the country’s active cases, and of those, 54 percent are from Haredi neighborhoods. Within a month, 57 residents of Haredi neighborhoods have died, compared to only seven the previous month. Eighty-four residents of these neighborhoods are hospitalized, compared to only 22 a month earlier. The active cases in these neighborhoods have shot up from 1,000 a month ago to 9,000 now.

Jerusalem, January 17, 2021.

The capital’s schools are responsible for a significant portion of these infections. Of 4,700 active cases among schoolchildren, some 3,800 (80 percent) study in Haredi schools.

In Bnei Brak, another focal point of infection, there are 42 residents hospitalized with the coronavirus whereas a month ago there were only four. A month ago there were 430 active cases in the city, while today there are 4,800. Twelve residents have died this month compare to only three the previous month.

According to an analysis of Home Front Command data by Eldad Sitbon for Haaretz, over the past month there have been 672 new cases of serious illness and ventilations, of whom 94 (14 percent) are Haredim. Of the 180,000 cases confirmed over the past month, some 55,000 (30.5 percent) are from the Haredi community, twice the proportion of their community to the rest of the population, and in recent days they have accounted for 40 percent of newly confirmed cases.

It must be noted that many parts of the Haredi community are taking the precautions seriously and that Haredi society suffers from objective conditions, like overcrowding, that make it harder to observe all the guidelines.

Surprisingly, Haredi lawmakers other than Interior Minister Arye Dery have barely been heard from during this recent phase of the crisis. “These are false claims,” Dery’s office told Haaretz on Sunday. “Most of the Haredi public observes the guidelines and the majority of educational institutions are closed.”

Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman responded similarly to a Haaretz query. “Contrary to what is being said, most synagogues are not operating normally, and so it is with most of the Haredi educational system. Despite certain changes and differences of approach, the overwhelming majority of the Haredi public observes the government guidelines as instructed by our sages.” United Torah Judaism lawmaker Moshe Gafni did not respond.

Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman at Tel Aviv's Ichilov Hospital, December 2020.

Because in Haredi society it is the rabbis who make the decisions and not necessarily elected officials, Haredi mayors, like the lawmakers, find themselves having to maneuver between often contradictory instructions. On the one hand, cities are sponsoring campaigns warning their residents of the dangers of the virus, while on the other hand they are not cracking down on schools or synagogues, directing whatever enforcement there is at businesses.

The Bnei Brak municipality said it “was able to lower the infection rate below the national average for a time. As in the rest of the country, in Bnei Brak this third wave is characterized by a higher rate of infection that is apparently connected to the new mutations.”

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon’s office said enforcement was the police’s job, adding, “The Jerusalem Municipality and its chief are making their best efforts to observe the lockdown guidelines and to increase the vaccinations in Jerusalem.”

Beit Shemesh Municipality said it “has been encouraging vaccination, even sending vehicles for those who need to be vaccinated but have trouble getting there.”

In Elad, the city said, “We suggest that the people of Israel, during these difficult times, focus on the positive, and the efforts being made by the public and local government, and not to look for violations, which unfortunately exist among all the communities in Israel.”

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