As New York Eases Coronavirus Measures, Orthodox Jews Say Law Is Applied Unevenly

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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Police instruct a crowd as hundreds of mourners gather in the Brooklyn borough of New York to observe a funeral for Rabbi Chaim Mertz, April 28, 2020.
Police instruct a crowd as hundreds of mourners gather in the Brooklyn borough of New York to observe a funeral for Rabbi Chaim Mertz, April 28, 2020. Credit: Todd Maisel / AP
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

As New York starts reopening after more than 100 days of lockdown brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, Orthodox Jewish communities in the state are criticizing “unevenly applied governmental laws”, which they say “impede our religious freedoms and parental autonomy,” and have decided to take the matter to court. 

“The state recognized that COVID-19 cases have plummeted for months when it sanctioned horse racing, peaceful protests by thousands, professional sports training, and graduation ceremonies, all with only minimal restrictions,” The Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America said in a statement on Friday. “Our shuls, camps, and schools are at least as vital, and the Governor must find safe ways to open them as well.”

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Last week, Agudath Israel of America submitted a brief as a friend of the court (amicus curiae) in support of a lawsuit filed on June 10 in a federal court for civil rights violations by two Catholic priests and three Orthodox Jews

When asked about playgrounds and parks remaining closed and criticism from Orthodox Jews, Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week that the city "tried to make it work," but could not find an effective solution.

The 48-page lawsuit, filed against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James and Mayor Bill de Blasio, challenges the state’s decision to limit attendance at houses of worship.

The lawsuit is asking the court to compel the state to “apply to plaintiffs’ religious gatherings no greater limits than they have placed on essential retail businesses and the mass demonstrations approved by defendants Cuomo and de Blasio”. 

According to Agudath Israel of America, a ruling is expected sometime this week. 

A similar lawsuit was filed by the Association of Jewish Camp Operators – a consortium of Orthodox Jewish overnight camps serving approximately 41,000 children – and some parents, on Thursday. The plaintiffs are asking the court to overturn Cuomo’s decision not to open overnight children’s camps this summer, announced earlier this month. 

“It’s a balance of the health risk versus the activity,” Cuomo said during a press conference on June 13.

Although the state decided to allow the reopening of day camps, Cuomo said sleepaway camps are “a much higher level of risk.”

“After much study and debate and research, our advice in New York State by our health commissioner is that the risk is too great to open the summer camps,” Cuomo added.

“Camp is essential to children and families,” Agudath Israel of America, which leads the group, said in a statement. “Parents enroll their children in Jewish camps because they want their children to be immersed in an environment where they live Judaism 24/7.”

According to the organization, the importance of camp is especially great this year as “children have been locked down for months, and have suffered emotionally, socially, academically, and spiritually as a result.”

“Parents, too, lacking proper childcare, may have had to curtail or suspend their employment,” they added. “While these drastic and painful steps may have been necessary during the pandemic, with COVID-19 cases plummeting for months now, it is time for the state to find safe ways to allow children to go to camp,” the organization said.

The legal moves come after many in the community have also called out de Blasio for what they say is a double standard he showed over the past few weeks, asking why the city allows large demonstrations to take place, while synagogues are shuttered and coronavirus restrictions are still in place. 

Last week, Orthodox Jewish elected officials also protested the closure of parks and playgrounds in their districts as a coronavirus precaution, while residents seem to be allowed in other areas of the city. 

“Governor Andrew Cuomo’s reopening plan is completely inconsistent and makes no sense at all,” Orthodox Jewish State Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, who represents the Borough Park and Midwood sections of Brooklyn, said in a video he posted to Twitter. 

“To all my constituents wondering why your children cannot go to sleepaway camp this summer while there will be a ‘free for all’ at state beaches and while adult sports leagues can take place: you are right, that’s what Governor Cuomo decided,” he said. 

“Don’t be fooled, there is one person and one person only who has the power to restore New York’s greatness and that’s Governor Andrew Cuomo,” he added, encouraging people to call the governor’s office to complain.

When asked about playgrounds and parks remaining closed and criticism from Orthodox Jews, de Blasio said last week: “We tried to make it work, it wasn’t working effectively.”

De Blasio added that the City is not going to change the policy on playgrounds until it reaches phase two of its exit strategy, which he said “could be as soon as June 22”, although he believes it will take longer.  

He did not address the claim that parks outside Orthodox neighborhoods were open.

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