American Jewish Umbrella Group Files Lawsuit to Avoid New York Covid Restrictions

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Orthodox Jews gather for prayers on Sukkot on a neighborhood lawn to avoid over-crowding at a synagogue, in the New York City suburb of Monsey, New York, U.S., October 5, 2020.
File photo: Orthodox Jews gather for prayers on Sukkot on a neighborhood lawn to avoid over-crowding at a synagogue, in the New York City suburb of Monsey, New York, U.S., October 5, 2020.Credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar

NEW YORK - The Orthodox umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America filed a lawsuit in federal court on Thursday, asking to bar the State of New York from enforcing its restrictions on attendance in houses of worship in designated areas.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the new limitations earlier this week in areas of the state experiencing an uptick in COVID-19 cases in Brooklyn, Queens, Rockland County and Orange County. They include a cap on religious services set at ten individuals, school and business closures. The new restrictions will go into effect by Friday, as Jewish communities begin celebrations of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the last of the fall holidays, which are generally celebrated with large gatherings and dancing. The rules will be in effect for 14 days. If the infection rate diminishes at the end of the designated period, they will be eased.

But for weeks, Orthodox community leaders have expressed frustration with city and state authorities for their failure to do meaningful outreach in the community, and imposing measures they say are singling them out. Frustrations reached a peak on Tuesday and Wednesday nights with hundreds of orthodox Jews protesting in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn. Both nights, demonstrations turned violent with the burning of masks and physical attacks on counter-protester Berish Getzon on Tuesday and a journalist, Jacob Kornbluh, on Wednesday. 

 Agudah’s Chairman of the Board Shlomo Werdiger said that the lawsuit is  “a last resort.” “We would have been able to accomplish much more for these critical public health needs had the governor’s administration worked together with us more closely beforehand,” he added. “Unfortunately, the Governor’s new executive order makes it impossible for us to practice our religion, and we really had no choice but to seek relief in the courts.”

Agudath’s complaint argues that Cuomo’s restrictions “unconstitutionally discriminate against religious practice while simultaneously permitting comparable secular conduct.” “Moreover, the restrictions violate Free Exercise rights because they appear to target conduct due to their religious motivation,” the group said. 

File photo: Andrew Cuomo delivers a COVID-19 update during a briefing in New York City, July 13, 2020.Credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar

With the upcoming holidays, the restrictions, the group said, “disrupt the religious observance of tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews, depriving them of their religious worship and holiday observance.”

The lawsuit also states that although the caps apply to “house of worship” in general, the governor’s measures are disproportionately impacting Orthodox Jews, who cannot drive to a synagogue out of a “red zone” on Shabbat or holidays. 

Agudath is requesting that the court immediately grant a temporary restraining order preventing the state government from enforcing the new limits to allow for holiday services to take place. It also asks that the court find the restrictions unconstitutional. 

“Social distancing, masking, and all health precautions must, of course, be observed,”  Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel, said.  “However, we think that it is possible to stay safe and at the same time have more than ten people in a Shul building that is meant to hold hundreds.” 

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