This West Bank ultra-Orthodox Settlement Actually Prepared for the Coronavirus

Betar Ilit, in the West Bank, has been practicing social distancing for weeks, whether on the street or communicating across apartment balconies

Tali Heruti-Sover.
Tali Heruti-Sover
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A young man in the Israeli settlement of Betar Illit in the West Bank during the coronavirus outbreak, April 2020.
A young man in the Israeli settlement of Betar Illit in the West Bank during the coronavirus outbreak, April 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Tali Heruti-Sover.
Tali Heruti-Sover

A large yellow sign greeting visitors to the center of the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Betar Ilit informed them that the kashering of utensils for Passover would only be done this year by home delivery.

The usual practice had been to station giant steaming vats in public spaces across this West Bank city where families would come to immerse their utensils to render them kosher for the holiday. But this year, the service was canceled on orders of city hall to avoid coronavirus lockdown violations.

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In normal times, the vats were placed on the street and users paid a nominal fee. This year, residents paid more because of the mandatory home delivery service. Kashering five pots and three pans ran 80 shekels ($22) in addition to 20 shekels for the person who picked up the hardware and returned it within an hour.

Even businesses adapted. It’s also a pre-Passover custom to buy new shoes, but amid the regulations that shuttered most retailers during the pandemic, one nimble shoe store advertised in a local newspaper that it was offering home delivery service.

A visit to Betar Ilit a few days before Passover, amid the complete lockdown on ultra-Orthodox towns where the infection rate far exceeds the national average, revealed an interesting paradox. Unlike other ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, communities, the authorities in Betar Ilit showed flexibility and the residents demonstrated discipline not seen in other ultra-Orthodox locales.

As of Thursday, 182 Betar Ilit residents were infected with the coronavirus among roughly 59,000 inhabitants. That’s a much lower rate than in the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, for example, where the numbers were 1,933 and 195,000, and in Elad east of Tel Aviv, which was at 276 and 47,000.

As with Haredi towns and neighborhoods, few people in Betar Ilit have forsaken a life of prayer and study. But a considerable number are immigrants, and compared to other Haredi communities the number of men who hold jobs is high. Some women from Betar Ilit even work in high-tech. The mayor of the settlement, Meir Rubinstein, is in his late 40s and has a more open outlook than some of his counterparts.

A general steps in

All this helps explain how Betar Ilit managed to respond to the pandemic better than other Haredi towns.

“A situation room was set up at city hall and all the departments got ready, including the social welfare department,” municipal spokesman Shlomi Gil said. “And the rabbis, who also cooperate here in normal times, are taking a clear line that the Health Ministry’s instructions should be observed.”

Residents who asked not to be named said the debate in Betar Ilit about the pandemic got off to an early start. Schools closed in the settlement before they did in other towns, and online classes began. At the same time, public spaces such as playgrounds were placed off limits. Yeshivas were practicing social distancing when other Haredi yeshivas kept on operating without restrictions.

Rubinstein even asked the Interior Ministry to assign a reserve major general to help address the situation. The first task of Maj. Gen. Yossi Bachar was to figure out how widespread the coronavirus was in Betar Ilit and how to adapt practices to the residents’ special needs.

Alcohol gel in front of religious study books in the Israeli settlement of Betar Ilit, West Bank, April 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg

For instance, residents with symptoms had for weeks no choice but to go to Jerusalem to be tested, which meant that the number of cases was probably much higher than what was being reported. So, to encourage more testing, a drive-through center was set up that could handle two cars at a time.

The problem was that only 30% of Betar Ilit residents own a car, so now more testing is being done in people's homes.

The low rate of car ownership means that most residents of Betar Ilit, which covers a huge area, rely on public transportation. On the day I visited, buses were operating normally and small groups were congregating around bus stops without observing social distancing. Most people weren’t wearing masks. While most of the town’s streets were empty, food stores were doing brisk business.

In an effort to thin the crowds, Rubinstein asked supermarkets to remain open 24 hours a day. Two local food retailers agreed, but at supermarkets it was different. A guard checked the temperatures of shoppers as they entered and only admitted a new shopper after another had left.

But this created a long line outside of people not wearing masks or gloves – in part because they were still in short supply. Some people were crowding near one another.

At a small grocery, people were snapping up masks and were better at social distancing. And at the entrance, shoppers were given rubber gloves they were told they had to wear if they wanted to come in. They were also required to wear masks.

Fear over being infected has also spawned creative ideas. A few families created a joint shopping list and sent one person to the supermarket at 3 A.M. to buy everything.

People queuing outside a store during the coronavirus outbreak in the Israeli settlement of Betar Ilit, West Bank, April 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Not as densely populated

When it was founded in 1988, Betar Ilit was the first town created by the government specifically for Haredim. This has given it some advantages over older ultra-Orthodox enclaves such as Bnei Brak and much of Jerusalem.

Eight kilometers (5 miles) southwest of Jerusalem, Betar Ilit occupies two high hilltops, so residents enjoy clean air as well as beautiful views. Because it was a planned community covering a large area, it is not as densely populated as other Haredi communities. It has spacious playgrounds, green open spaces and plenty of recycling facilities.

On the other hand, Betar Ilit’s wide and well-tended streets were dirty and littered during my visit, presumably because many municipal workers have been put on unpaid leave.

Crowding at home is an issue, too. As is typical in Israeli ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods, the average family in Betar Ilit has seven children, so more than two-thirds of its people are under 18. The city also ranks low on the government’s socioeconomic index. According to the municipality, 70% to 80% of households qualify for discounts on their municipal taxes.

Before every holiday, Betar Ilit residents offer help to the poorest families, including the distribution of food parcels by synagogues and nonprofit groups. But this year the nonprofits themselves are in financial straits and synagogues have been closed.

However, at a Bratslav Haredi facility, eight young men were at work in the parking lot under a hot sun wearing masks and gloves. They were sorting hundreds of kilograms of potatoes, carrots and other produce (albeit not of the highest quality) that the city had received from the Leket Israel foodbank. More produce was expected later in the day that young people in the community would sort and deliver to needy families.

“We’ve already distributed 14 tons of food,” said an employee of the city’s welfare department, excited about the number of volunteers and the amount of food that had been donated.

The city was also distributing kimcha d’pischa – flour for Passover – a traditional form of charity for the poor before the holiday, in this case organized by a fund called Beitar Family. Some 500 volunteers were recruited through the organization Yedidim, which usually helps residents with car rides or flat tires.

In just two days, the volunteers visited homes to distribute thousands of coupons the poor could use to buy necessities. This year, the necessities included board games to keep children stuck at home occupied.

Young men in the Israeli settlement of Betar Ilit, West Bank, during the coronavirus outbreak, April 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Many Betar Ilit residents don’t have the internet, so they don’t Zoom and aren’t as good at keeping up with the news. The main medium for learning the news is an old-fashioned voice-only phone and a system that sends recorded messages to 13,500 phones at a time.

“Suddenly, all the phones at home ring at once, and when you answer you hear: ‘Beitar Ilit citizens, this is the mayor speaking,’” said one resident, who asked not to be named. “It’s an important, efficient system that not only provides information but is a way of recruiting volunteers.”

The system is supplemented by more traditional ways of communicating with residents – pashkevilim (wall posters, which few are seeing because of the lockdown), and ads in local print newspapers that come out almost every day.

Another old-new system is communicating across apartment balconies. Virtually every apartment has one so that residents can build a sukkah, and now they have become relay stations for news. They also have become the center of households; many have swings and hammocks and are filled with children playing.

Many have also become places for prayer and virtual community events. In what was billed as the “balcony rally,” 50,000 Betar Ilit residents gathered on their apartment balconies at 6 P.M. one evening and recited Psalms together, one resident says. Smaller inter-balcony minyans occur almost every morning.

“You have to understand that closing the synagogues created a lot of distress,” one local said. “A Haredi man needs communal prayer like he needs to breath. The balcony is something of a substitute.”

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