Ultra-Orthodox Jews are the least likely Israelis to have changed their daily routines due to the pandemic, even though this community has suffered disproportionately from COVID-19 in its tightly packed neighborhoods, a new study has found.
According to the Israel Democracy Institute, while 55 percent of respondents said the pandemic had caused “substantial changes” in their daily routines, only 43 percent of ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Haredim, said this. This latter figure was lower than in four population segments provided by the institute: “traditional religious” (49 percent), “nonreligious traditional” (59 percent), religious (57 percent) and secular (54 percent).
Asked if COVID-19 had caused them to “rethink their lives” by changing their careers, stopping their academic studies or shifting their work-home balance, only 39.5 percent of Haredim said yes, well below the 43.5 percent of Israeli Jews and 49 percent of Israeli Arabs who said they had “made substantial changes in their lives because of the virus.”
Ultra-Orthodox Jews also rated their personal economic situation as either moderately good or very good even though “according to the official data the economic situation of the Haredim is the worst,” the researchers found. They surmised that this was because this community’s “economic expectations are different.”
Ultra-Orthodox Jews were particularly stung by the virus during the first three waves of the pandemic, partly because they tend to have larger families and live in denser neighborhoods than moderately religious and secular Israelis.
The community’s emphasis on group activities such as communal prayer and study, and their initial refusal to shut down schools and yeshivas, also slowed the implementation of social distancing measures during the first wave nearly two years ago.
During the second wave in September and October 2020, health officials reported that ultra-Orthodox Jews accounted for at least 34 percent of Israeli cases, despite making up only 12 percent of the country’s population.
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In a report released around the same time, the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel found that the ultra-Orthodox community was the worst hit of all Israeli demographic groups, with rates of confirmed infections around three times as high as the national average at around 31 percent.
From January 6 to 11 this year, the Haredi community accounted for around 15 percent of new cases, still a disproportionate showing. And even though ultra-Orthodox leaders have come out strongly in favor of vaccination, their followers have been slower than the general population in getting the shot.
According to the Taub Center study, which was based on Health Ministry data, if Israel’s Haredi population centers were considered their own sovereign state, their infection level would be more than twice as high as that of any country in the world, with ultra-Orthodox cities and towns recording the highest infection rates in Israel.
Even controlling for various external demographic factors, “the risk of infection in Haredi areas was 2.4 times higher than in non-Haredi Jewish areas,” the Taub Center said.
During the first year of the pandemic, ultra-Orthodox politicians repeatedly complained that the police and the media were discriminating against their constituencies, paying them inordinate attention and singling out their neighborhoods for lockdowns.
But data obtained this month by Be Free Israel, a nonprofit group that promotes separation of religion and state, showed that residents of Haredi cities have been significantly less likely to be fined for defying coronavirus regulations, even though these cities have seen some of the country’s worst outbreaks.
Ultra-Orthodox protesters repeatedly clashed with the police over neighborhood closures in 2020 and early last year, culminating a year ago in several days of violent rioting in Bnei Brak, a largely Haredi suburb of Tel Aviv.
JTA contributed to this report.