'The Frustration Is Real': Haaretz Q&A on COVID-19 and the ultra-Orthodox World

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Anshel Pfeffer, Danielle Ziri, Jacob Kornbluh and Amir Tibon discuss COVID-19 and the ultra-Orthodox, from Jerusalem to Brooklyn
Anshel Pfeffer, Danielle Ziri, Jacob Kornbluh and Amir Tibon discuss COVID-19 and the ultra-Orthodox, from Jerusalem to Brooklyn

The pictures that emerged from New York's Borough Park neighborhood last week were shocking: Local journalist Jacob Kornbluh, who has spent months reporting on violations of COVID-19 restrictions in some of the area's ultra-Orthodox communities, was surrounded, threatened and attacked by an angry mob as retribution for his work.

On the very same day, Israeli media outlets reported on how the Israeli police were turning a blind eye to massive violations by Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox strongholds during the national lockdown.

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Why has the ultra-Orthodox community been hit so hard by the pandemic? How are rabbinical leaders in Israel and the United States dealing with this situation, and what are elected officials doing in both countries? 

On Monday, October 12, Haaretz hosted a special Zoom briefing on COVID-19 in the ultra-Orthodox world, in order to answer these questions and others.

Haaretz Special Brief: How COVID-19 upended ultra-Orthodox life, from Jerusalem to Brooklyn

Haaretz senior columnist Anshel Pfeffer and our New York correspondent, Danielle Ziri, spoke about how the pandemic had upended life in Haredi communities on both sides of the ocean, from Jerusalem to Brooklyn. They were joined by Jacob Kornbluh, who made a guest appearance to talk about his reporting for Jewish Insider and share his analysis.

Following the discussion, which was moderated by Amir Tibon, readers were able to present questions to Anshel, Danielle and Jacob. Here are some of their answers. (Quotes have been abbreviated to provide clarity. Watch the video above for the full dialogue.)

Are there specific ultra-Orthodox groups in Israel that are more affected and have higher rates of COVID-19 cases than others?

Anshel: There are two groups we have to look at specifically. We have the Hasidic communities, some of which have been very notable in their total dismissal of any kind of COVID-19 regulations, and that’s why we’ve seen major outbreaks in Hasidic courts. The other group we need to look at are Yeshiva communities. But I don’t think we can say it’s just pockets, I think it’s a much wider issue here in Israel. When Yeshiva students come home from their studies, they’re living with their families in very small apartments, and the infection goes around. We can point at specific parts of the community, but the spread is all over, it isn’t a matter of just a few pockets.

Ultra-Orthodox students study religious texts in a yeshiva using protective plastic shields set up amid the coronavirus pandemic, in Bnei Brak, Israel, August 27, 2020.Credit: Oded Balilty / אי־פי

Danielle, you mentioned how in New York, some rabbis are telling people – bring a mask to synagogue, keep your distance, listen to the authorities. is it sincere, or just window dressing?

Danielle: What I’ve seen here in New York, I believe, is sincere. It wasn’t published in the media, it was internal messages inside the community that people showed me. It’s a sincere effort and when it is sincere, it’s working. Sometimes you will have people who are putting statements out there and are not living up to them, but that happens everywhere, in every community.

Why is there such a strong distrust of government within some of the Ultra-Orthodox communities in NYC?

Jacob: It has to do with the traditional practices of our community, which are drastically different from the rest of the society, and also with the fact that most ultra-Orthodox are politically conservative, and they disagree with the Democratic Party that is in power here in New York. Mike Bloomberg, a Republican, was already seen as not a real Republican by many in the community, and people now think the Democrats are out to get them.

Can the relations between secular and Haredi Israelis be repaired after what we’ve seen in recent months?

Anshel: One of the sadder things about this pandemic, in Israel and other countries, it’s that it hasn’t really appealed to our better selves. We haven’t seen people coming together and putting aside their differences as much as we would have wanted.

Israel’s deep divisions, including the secular-religious divide, have really deepened during the pandemic. The one place where you do see cooperation is the hospitals, everybody goes to the same hospitals and gets treated by the same medical teams, and that’s where you do see some unity, you have everyone from Arab Israelis to ultra-Orthodox working together, that’s ironically the place where you will find unity.

Ultra-Orthodox protesters carrying pro-Trump signs gather to denounce a localized lockdown due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, Borough Park, New York City, October 07, 2020Credit: SPENCER PLATT - AFP

What are the people protesting in Borough Park actually asking from the governor and the mayor?

Jacob: That’s a million dollar question, I don’t know what they’re asking for. Of course here in America people have First Amendment rights, but I think everyone should adhere to social distancing guidelines when protesting, and once you violate that, your entire objective for protesting gets diminished.

Danielle: There is frustration, it has to do with how the authorities are relating to the community. I’ve spoken to community leaders who’ve said that Governor Cuomo placed restrictions on ‘red zone’ communities an hour after speaking to them, and he said nothing about it during the call, and they heard about it from the media. That frustration has been abused by some people for political gains, but the frustration is real.