In America’s Only Orthodox Town, Coronavirus Poses Unique Challenge for Insular Jewish Community

Kiryas Joel is home to some 25,000 Satmar Hasidic Jews. With their leader testing positive for COVID-19 last week, the community is taking unprecedented steps to contain the outbreak

Young members of the Kiryas Joel community in 2014. The village shuttered all its schools on March 19, 2020, in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Mike Groll / AP

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to strike around the world, Orthodox communities in the United States have made unprecedented and dramatic steps to try to slow the rate of infection.

Orthodox groups and prominent rabbis have issued notices urging people to comply with the social distancing guidelines issued by authorities. They have even gone as far as to call for people to cancel large Passover gatherings and reduce the holiday preparations to “essential” things only.

Synagogues, religious schools and other institutions have also closed in line with health requirements.

New York is by far the hardest-hit state, with more than 26,000 confirmed cases and some 210 deaths. Over 13,000 of those cases are in New York City. Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a press conference Tuesday that the rate of new infections is doubling about every three days. “We haven’t flattened the curve and the curve is actually increasing,” he said. “We are exercising all options as aggressively as we can.”

In the Satmar Hasidic community – an insular group estimated to include some 65,000 to 75,000 members, most of whom live either in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or the village of Kiryas Joel (aka Palm Tree) north of New York City – unprecedented measures have been implemented as well.

Kiryas Joel leaders closed all synagogues, schools and mikvehs (ritual baths) last Thursday, a day after leading Satmar rabbis exempted vulnerable followers from some ritual requirements. Prior to the closures, the community had been slow to adopt changes that state officials had encouraged.

“This wasn’t an easy task, as a big portion of our daily life is taken up with praying in the synagogues three times a day,” says Aron Spielman, co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, whose mission is to counter the defamation and generalization of the Orthodox Jewish community.

“Educating our children in the schools is a number one priority, and to shut them down instantly, leaving tens of thousands of kids without a school, is enough of a reason for hesitancy at first,” says Spielman, who was born and raised in Kiryas Joel. “But at the same time, the concept of pikuach nefesh [saving a human life] is more important than any mitzvoth.”

Aron Spielman, second from left, a co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council.
OJPAC

Despite media reports that Orthodox Jews in Kiryas Joel were not complying with social distancing orders, which many fear could fuel further anti-Semitic sentiments against the community, Spielman says that “not one of over 100 synagogues in the village” is open for services.

“You can find enough videos online showing people outside this community not complying at shopping malls and parks,” he notes. “It’s wrong to generalize when you will always find some in every community failing to understand the seriousness of this crisis.”

The level of that crisis was brought home to locals last Friday when the leader of Kiryas Joel’s Satmar sect, Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum, 72, reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus. Teitelbaum’s brother, Zalman, leads the sect’s other branch, centered in Williamsburg, after the siblings feuded over who would succeed their father in 2006.

Data and misinformation

Gershon Schlesinger, who runs the ParCare Medical centers serving the Orthodox community in Brooklyn, helped set up COVID-19 testing tents in Williamsburg, close to Borough Park, and a third one in Kiryas Joel over the weekend. Because of a lack of test kits, Schlesinger’s team only tests people defined as “high risk”: those aged over 60 or anyone displaying “obvious symptoms.”

The number of people testing positive in Kiryas Joel “is approximately 25 to 28 percent, but that number was based on high-risk patients who originally had symptoms when they got tested,” Schlesinger says. “If we had the ability to do mass testing, that rate should be lower.”

Data and specific numbers relating to the spread of the coronavirus in Kiryas Joel have been difficult to find, and much misinformation has been circulating online. On Sunday, an Orthodox doctor in the area, Vladimir Zelenko, published a video in which he claimed that about 90 percent of the residents had or would soon contract the coronavirus. His claim was noted in a video by Orange County Executive Steven Neuhaus, who said that although he couldn’t confirm Zelenko’s figures, he was “concerned” about the health situation in the community.

“I have asked the governor’s office and the state for a number of things that we could be instituting to try to mitigate the spread of the virus, doing the same things they are doing in other communities like New Rochelle,” Neuhaus said. “At this time, that has not been granted and I am not sure if the resources are available to do that from the state. But the health commissioner and I have made repeated requests.”

Zelenko’s statement, which contradicts the data collected by Schlesinger at the local testing site, caused much uproar in the community.

The Emergency Management Office of Kiryas Joel – a coalition of government and private organizations dedicated to informing the community about the current crisis – wrote to Zelenko on Tuesday, asking him to stop speaking on behalf of the community.

“Though Dr. Zelenko is not a specialist in infectious diseases, nor an expert in epidemiology, he has taken to filming almost daily videos posted to YouTube on this crisis, referring to the Kiryas Joel community, that have been widely disseminated outside of our community,” the letter said. “Dr. Zelenko’s videos have caused widespread fear that has resulted in discrimination against members of the Hasidic community throughout the region.

“This exploitation of a crisis and a community is unacceptable, because it fuels anti-Semitism and only exacerbates a problem, making it only more difficult to manage,” it continued.

While the coalition noted that Zelenko is a respected physician and has been helping treat to COVID-19 patients, it added that “all data indicates that the infection rate in Kiryas Joel is mirroring the rest of Orange County, and therefore should not be a cause for panic or the singling out of one community.”

As of Tuesday, there were 411 confirmed cases in Orange County. According to Neuhaus, 48 percent of critical care beds are available in the county, with half of those occupied critical care beds being used for COVID-19 patients.

Not just a number

While Spielman says that no one in Kiryas Joel has died so far, there have been several deaths attributed to COVID-19 among the state’s Orthodox community in general, including some Satmar Hasids.

One of them was 102-year-old Liba Ettel Silberstein from Williamsburg. According to one of her great-grandchildren, Moshe Klein, she passed away last Friday at her home and is survived by eight children and some 1,200 descendents. Silberstein was a Holocaust and cancer survivor.

“Things people take for granted because life is hectic were a source of joy to her, because every single second showed splendor and promise,” Klein and his aunt Sarah Spitzer wrote in a tribute.

“Grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as great-great-grandchildren, gravitated toward her not because it was a duty but because we considered it an honor,” they added. “Positive energy always surrounded her, and her memory was sharper than that of people half her age.”

Silberstein likely contracted the coronavirus at a large family Purim celebration earlier this month.

Klein tells Haaretz that he wants people to know about his great-grandmother, because Holocaust survivors “were numbers then; they shouldn’t be numbers now.”

He says it is important to remember that coronavirus casualties “are people with a life story.” There were only 50 people at Silberstein’s funeral due to the current restrictions, but “in normal circumstances she would have more than 1,000 people” there, Klein says.

Another Satmar casualty, and close friend of Spielman’s, was Rabbi Avrohom Freund, 63, from Williamsburg, who passed away last Friday.

According to Yeshiva World News, “although it has not been confirmed, [Freund] showed and displayed all signs and symptoms of the coronavirus.”

Spielman says Freund was a “giant of chesed [kindness],” and “went out of his way to help in the most difficult times in life.

“He helped people quietly, without seeking any recognition,” Spielman adds. “This is a huge loss to me personally and to the community at large.”

As the coronavirus crisis has upended life in Kiryas Joel, Spielman says that “most of the anxieties in this crisis stem from the unknown. It’s the worst feeling ever, not knowing when, if and how. But guess what: You feel secure and taken care of living in the town of Palm Tree,” he says. “You know you have leaders you can always count on; they’re not just here to care for you in times of crisis but all year round, making sure every single citizen’s needs are met.”

Along with the COVID-19 testing station, Spielman says a drive-thru has also been established in the village: one giving out food. “Thousands of pounds of delicious foods are being handed out to the needy,” he says. “This is the mentality and beauty of the people in this village; that is why we feel safer even in times of crisis.

“We use the crisis as another opportunity to reach out and assist others in need,” he says.