Thousands of His Followers Could Have Died of COVID-19. Does This Rabbi Care?

Akiva Eldar
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The head of the Belz Hassidic sect, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, 2013.
Akiva Eldar

How many bottles of Champagne would be opened in the Balfour Street fortress if a protest leader – let’s say Brig. Gen. (res.) Amir Haskel – were to contract COVID-19, God forbid? It’s easy to imagine the fuss that would be kicked up were he to exploit his heightened public profile in order to get superior medical care. What a scandal would erupt if, right after recovering, the country’s leading protester called on Israelis to return in large numbers to the demonstrations outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Jerusalem home, ignoring social distancing and forgetting their face masks.

All that is happening, and not far from Balfour Street. And while the claim that the protesters are “spreaders of disease” is baseless, eight members of the city’s 10,000-strong Belz Hasidic court have died of the coronavirus.

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Unlike the leaders of the protest against the criminal-defendant prime minister, who comply with Health Ministry directives, as early as the first wave of the pandemic the admor of Belz ordered his followers to continue holding worship services and mass events indoors. He even held a wedding with thousands of guests in his community’s study hall, sans masks or social distancing.

When it turned out that the revered rabbi, Yissachar Dov Rokeach, was not immune to the virus, despite all the prayers, he refused to be hospitalized. Perhaps he did not lose all his shame. But his home was outfitted with all the necessary medical equipment. “His bedroom was effectively turned into its own intensive care unit,” Haaretz reported.

The rabbi’s personal physician briefed Hadassah Medical Center on his conditional daily. With the help of the doctors, and their study of the math, science and other subjects excluded from the Haredi curriculum, the admor recovered. But his illness apparently made no impression on him. He has continued to hold services and mass events, without social distancing and masks.

And in a public statement in his name, he ridiculed the government authorities (whose services and funding he receives) as well as rabbis who have observed government directives. The admor has been calling for “carrying on as we have been up to now, and the Almighty will help.” And of course being an admor helps too when it comes to getting VIP treatment.

This wasn’t the first time a member of the Rokeach family took advantage of their standing while abandoning followers to their fate. Just prior to the Nazi occupation of Hungary in 1944, the admor of Belz at the time, Rabbi Aharon Rokeach, obtained immigration certificates from the Zionist Jewish Agency, which he despised, but which permitted him and his brother to immigrate to British-ruled Mandatory Palestine.

Just prior to their departure for Palestine, the admor’s brother, Rabbi Mordechai Rokeach, delivered a “farewell sermon” on behalf of himself and his brother to the members of the community who were being left behind. “The righteous one sees that the inhabitants of the country here will have rest and tranquility,” he said, “and all good and only good and mercy will follow and will reach our Jewish brethren in this country.”

Thousands of followers of the admor, who prior to fleeing had promised his community only good and mercy, were turned into ash in the incinerators of the death camps. The followers of the admor of Satmar, who was also a bitter opponent of the Zionist movement, met a similar fate. He also found his way to the Land of Israel, on one of the so-called Kasztner trains, which took a number of Jews to safety in Switzerland. The admor left his adherents to their fate.

Like the Belz Hasidim, the descendants of the survivors of the Satmar and other Hasidic courts danced around their rabbis during the High Holy Days this year. Hundreds now fill hospital coronavirus departments to capacity. But never fear. The admor of Balfour won’t let the Zionist authorities interfere in their deaths. He has enough trouble with the “spreaders of disease” disturbing the rest of the lady of the house and the crown prince.

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