Coronavirus Surges Among New York Orthodox Jews, but Community Says Didn't Get Enough Help

Orthodox Jewish leaders say the authorities' outreach efforts have fallen short as Brooklyn neighborhoods with a significant Orthodox population account for around 20 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the city

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York
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Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams’s visit last week to the community in Borough Park.
Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams’s visit last week to the community in Borough Park. Credit: BPJCC
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York

NEW YORK – Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods across New York City and state are suffering a surge in coronavirus cases, but community leaders say more people are now complying with the guidelines despite what they call the authorities' failed outreach.

Over the past two weeks, city health officials have expressed concerns about the spike in cases in Brooklyn neighborhoods with a significant Orthodox population; the city says that as of Friday, these cases accounted for 20 percent of all cases in the city.

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To the north, Rockland and Orange counties, also home to a large Orthodox community, are also seeing a surge in cases.

“The community feels that the state and city have failed to reach out in the past six months, and are running to the media before even trying to understand the complex situation and come to an agreement with the community, [where] it is traditionally harder to follow social distancing orders," said Jacob Kornbluh, a reporter for the website Jewish Insider and a member of the community in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

The CEO of the Borough Park Jewish Community Council, Avi Greenstein, echoed Kornbluh, saying that information had been “shared as a press release to the press and has not been shared with community leaders.”

“You know what type of message that sends to the community? We constantly are getting updates from the media but not from the Department of Health,” Greenstein said.

“Unfortunately, the city feels that they have to threaten to close down schools and close down the community and small businesses as opposed to working on effective strategies. It’s very hurtful.”

He said that since city hall began talking about the worsening situation in Orthodox areas, there has been “no increase in effective, meaningful communication that truly makes a difference, and there is no sense of collaborating with the community.”

According to Greenstein, the city health commissioner, Dave Chokshi, finally held a virtual conference with community leaders Thursday but did not mention any plans to close local schools or businesses – plans that community leaders learned about a few hours later in the media.

Greenstein said the only elected official from outside the local community who visited the area was Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, last week.

“It was a very collaborative tone,” Greenstein said. “[Adams] showed a sense of caring about this community, making sure this community doesn’t come across as being marginal.”

Last week, New York City health officials threatened to put under lockdown ultra-Orthodox areas where the virus was quickly spreading. The New York Times reported that such a lockdown "would be the first major retreat by the city on reopening since the pandemic began."

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday that the city would start fining people who refused to wear masks.

“Anyone who refuses to wear a face covering will be told that if they don’t put one on they will be fined, and anyone who still refuses will be fined. That will happen aggressively,” de Blasio said.

Orthodox community leaders say most of the outreach efforts by the mayor and his team have been ineffective, though de Blasio said last week that “outreach to the community has been nonstop," adding that the city has "been constantly communicating with community leaders. I have been on any number of calls myself, my team has been talking with community leaders nonstop throughout, and the message has been really clear.”

Greenstein , however, said the mayor’s office had not consulted with community organizations and was simply dropping off masks and signs in incorrect Yiddish. He said trucks with loudspeakers were giving Yiddish announcements on COVID-19 in non-Yiddish speaking communities.

Amid the tension, some community activists interrupted health officials who showed up in Brooklyn last week to hold a street press conference on the increase in cases. The activists accused the officials of mis-portraying the Orthodox Jewish community.

According to Kornbluh of Jewish Insider, “The fact that there was a rise in cases since August 1 and just now there’s panic about it shows the city didn’t really seek to deal with the problem or the lack of enforcement during the April lockdown."

Governor Andrew Cuomo, who said he would meet with Orthodox Jewish leaders in the coming days, also slammed the city, blaming the uptick on a failure to enforce the mask mandate.

“Local governments need to do the compliance,” he said, adding that the city police, who are tasked with enforcing the coronavirus laws,  are not complying themselves.

“Why don’t the NYPD wear masks? What signal does that send?”
Dr. Mitchell Katz, the head of New York City health system, told The New York Times. "In the absence of our doing the right thing, we will need to be in a lockdown-type situation as occurred in Israel."

Israel originally considered a plan by its coronavirus coordinator to impose a lockdown only in "red" cities – towns and neighborhoods where the detected spread of the virus was especially high. But many of those areas have a large ultra-Orthodox community, and the plan was dropped following pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties in Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition. Now the entire country is under lockdown.

Back in Brooklyn, Kornbluh said he saw “greater awareness, and over the weekend, community leaders and rabbis have managed to communicate the guidelines of wearing masks and social distancing.”

Greenstein added that he had observed “an increase in people wearing masks” this week compared to last.

“Obviously not everyone is wearing masks, but I do feel there is definitely an increase in that,” he said.

The co-founder of the Rockland County-based Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, Yossi Gestetner, said he believed that the authorities were wrongly cracking down on the Orthodox Jewish community.

“Cases are rising inside and outside the Orthodox Jewish Community. The latter is blessed with an abundance of access to health care, so people test easily when they feel under the weather,” he said.

“Last week Friday night, 300 non-Jews attended a wedding in Queens, no masks, no distancing, and I saw a video of Thursday night where the Rockland County executive, Ed Day, hosted an event where almost half the crowd didn't have masks and there was no social distancing. These incidents illustrate the problem when officials zero in on specific neighborhoods without taking the full picture into account.”

Still, Gestetner said he hoped that “everyone buttons down well on this regardless what officials say and do.”

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